Professors Take Out Ads Protesting Their University’s Online Degree...

Digital Learning

Professors Take Out Ads Protesting Their University’s Online Degree Programs

By Jeffrey R. Young     Nov 16, 2017

Professors Take Out Ads Protesting Their University’s Online Degree Programs

Professors at Eastern Michigan University launched an unusual ad campaign this week criticizing their university’s online degree programs—suggesting they are “FalseEMU”—in a protest against the model of colleges working with outside companies to help build and market online programs.

“These degrees will carry the EMU name. But they won’t have the quality, scholarship and service that are hallmarks of a true EMU education,” reads the advertisement created by two faculty unions at Eastern Michigan. The ads appeared in the campus newspaper and on social media.

At issue is a deal inked last year between the university and Academic Partnerships, a company that helps colleges develop and advertise their online programs. University leaders say that the arrangement involves only marketing and recruitment, and that faculty and university leaders control all academic decisions.

But the two faculty unions, the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and the EMU Federation of Teachers, which represents adjuncts, say that the company is involved in many aspects of course design and could bring in outside online coaches for students without faculty oversight. The groups also charge that the university is developing new online programs with the company without formal academic approval, in violation of union contracts.

Ad placed by faculty groups at Eastern Michigan University

The unions already filed a formal grievance, which is still going through the arbitration process.

“We’re calling for a halt to these programs until faculty and other university stakeholders can conduct a thorough review,” said Daric Thorne, a part-time lecturer and president of the EMU Federation of Teachers, during a press briefing on Wednesday. “Teacherless classrooms are not some fancy wave of the future. It represents a de-skilling of the teaching profession.” The groups also started an online petition against the deal that has drawn more than 150 signatures.

University leaders say that no online programs are being created without faculty approval and oversight, and that Academic Partnerships is focused on helping market existing online programs.

“The assertion that EMU is adding new programs without permission is incorrect,” said Geoffrey Larcom, executive director of media relations at Eastern Michigan.

He said that as at many regional universities, a big challenge is getting the word out about its online programs. “How do you reach a student in, say, Arizona or someplace? You have to employ sophisticated marketing techniques to reach them,” he said. It’s a growing cost for many colleges. Academic Partnerships is making the bet that it can draw new students, “and they don’t get paid unless they generate new enrollments,” said Larcom. The company gets 50 percent of the tuition revenue from students it recruits.

Leaders of the faculty groups, however, complain that they have been left in the dark about the arrangement, and that they have been forced to piece together details of the deal. One document they obtained outlines a set of possible services Academic Partnerships provides that includes “utilize virtual teaching assistance,” and also talks about details including course lengths and caps on enrollment. Those issues go beyond marketing and recruitment, the faculty leaders stress.

Molly Casey, vice president of brand marketing for Academic Partnerships, said that list simply reflects “items a university may consider when bringing a program online,” and that it is up to the university to decide what to use. “AP does not provide any teaching assistance nor oversight of it,” she added.

In January, the university’s provost, Rhonda Longworth, sent a message to all faculty and staff that tried to address faculty concerns, noting that the agreement with Academic Partnerships “does NOT alter University control over academic matters in any way.”

She stated: “I want to directly address one rumor in particular about jobs. There will be NO change in the assignment process for course instructors as a part of this agreement. While Academic Partnerships does offer grading and other teaching assistance services that can be tapped if desired, these are supports in addition to assigned instructors. They are NOT replacements. And the hiring for any and all instructional personnel will follow our existing labor agreements and HR processes.”

Such statements have not satisfied professors, however.

Judith Kullberg, president of the university’s AAUP, said the fact that the provost noted that teaching assistance services “can be tapped” means that "coaches" the company sometimes helps provide at other campuses could one day “wind up as instructors for our students,” and that she remains concerned. “When we asked for a commitment in writing that coaches would not be used, the university refused,” she added.

One Program’s Experience

Universities are in fact on uncharted ground inviting for-profit marketing companies into their midsts, and the presence of firms like Academic Partnerships—known collectively as online program managers, or OPMs—is part of what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called the “embedded for-profit” model of higher education.

Ronald Flowers is the department head for Eastern Michigan University’s Leadership and Counseling department, which has been offering online degree programs for more than 13 years. He says that about three years ago, a university administrator came to him to first present the idea of working with Academic Partnerships.

“He said, ‘Would you be interested if there was a company that would market your programs and extend your reach?’”

Flowers said his own budget for such outreach is miniscule. “I have less than $5,000 to market my programs—all of my different programs,” he added. “They can put the kind of resources into marketing our program that we don’t have.”

But he said initially he had the same questions that faculty unions are raising this week. In talks with a leader of Academic Partnerships,“I’ve told her, you start messing with my faculty and we walk out the door,” he said. “We have to remain in control over what we do in the classroom.”

He acknowledges that the company’s incentives are to make it is as easy as possible for students to enter the program, and that he has repeatedly said no to suggestions and questions from Academic Partnerships representatives about whether he could change their standards.

“They wanted to know, ‘Do you really need letters of recommendation for students?’” he recalled. But he said he always pushes back in such situations. “Our faculty make the decisions about who gets in, and that process hasn’t changed at all.”

“There’s been a perception that Academic Partnerships has dictated some things,” he added. “But I’ve been in the room when we’ve had conversations where I’ve said, ‘This would threaten our academic integrity and we won’t go there,’ and they’ve said, ‘Fine.’”

He said that the charges made in ads placed this week by faculty groups about the university’s arrangement with Academic Partnerships are “not accurate.”

“I appreciate the concern about the nature of privatization of public education—I get it,” he said. “We don’t dispute that it’s a good conversation to have. But it shouldn’t necessarily be a conversation stopper.”

For union leaders, though, the biggest concern seem to be what might happen as these for-profit entities move closer to the academic core.

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