Why Purdue Professors Continue to Protest Purdue’s Purchase of a...

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Why Purdue Professors Continue to Protest Purdue’s Purchase of a For-Profit U.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 3, 2018

Why Purdue Professors Continue to Protest Purdue’s Purchase of a For-Profit U.

If Purdue University’s purchase of the for-profit Kaplan University can be thought of as a wedding, there were plenty of people in the audience shouting objections throughout the ceremony. The loudest were Purdue professors, who argued that the pair were far too incompatible to unite.

Among those professors is David Sanders, an associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue and past chair of the university’s Faculty Senate. He organized a petition against the merger, which created what is now called Purdue University Global.

When the EdSurge On Air podcast featured an interview last week with Purdue Global’s chancellor, Betty Vandenbosch, Sanders wrote in offering to share the faculty side of the story. And though the knot is already tied, he and other professors at Purdue say they would still like to have a say in how this new institution operates.

Subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: What was your initial reaction to the news that Purdue University would be buying Kaplan to create an online wing?

Sanders: It was announced to the faculty immediately before there was going to be a public announcement at a Board of Trustees meeting.

So it was already a done deal?

There was no consultation with the faculty. There had been consultation with the state legislature, so there was enabling legislation that was already in the works. [When] it was announced to the faculty, and there was nothing but stunned silence. There were no questions. Normally the faculty likes to ask questions and understand implications, but this was just so overwhelming. The fact that the faculty had not been consulted about such an important educational issue was just stunning. So there were so many questions that no one asked any questions at that time.

What we did was to create a special session of the university senate to try to address these issues. And we generated about 150 questions that we submitted to the administration about this issue, and so that’s how our involvement got started.

When I first heard about this, I had questions, but I didn’t have any particular opinion about whether it was a good thing or not. And that is why I had the special session of the Senate scheduled.

As I learned more and more about the merger, the acquisition, I became more and more opposed to it, and so did the overwhelming majority of my faculty colleagues. So that’s why we generated a petition, essentially asking for more consultation and for consideration of the faculty opinion.

We think that we could have provided—whether or not it was going to go forward—useful advice about the nature of the union, and about whether this particular union [made sense]. I mean, there are many for-profit educational entities out there. Whether this was the best fit for Purdue, whether a 30-year contract was, in fact, the best way to proceed. But we weren’t consulted about any of these matters. They were all just presented to us.

In talking with the chancellor of Purdue University Global, one of the things that struck me was how separate and how different the culture was at Purdue University Global. So why not just have this separate organization doing education differently for an audience that they think needs it that way?

It does seem, at least in the short run, that it’s going to be separate. We’ve already heard from fellow faculty that they are being pressured to create materials for Purdue University Global, and it’s not clear who owns the intellectual property on those sorts of courses. [Purdue University Global said it is not pressuring any Purdue professors to produce courses.]

And we, as faculty, take pride in the education that we are providing to students at Purdue University, and we take pride in the Purdue name, and the extension of the Purdue name to a for-profit entity. It’s now referred to as a “public benefit corporation,” but it is not actually a public university. And the university [Purdue Global] is not subject to open-records rules. It’s going to continue to operate essentially as a corporate entity, not as an educational entity. The purpose of a for-profit corporate entity is to make money. That is not the purpose of Purdue University.

So having Purdue’s name associated with this entity, I think, is detrimental. I think it will create confusion. I think it will cheapen the value of a Purdue degree. [The chancellor] mentioned—and I was surprised by this—that they’re going to have one alumni association of Purdue University Global and Purdue University West Lafayette. I mean, that’s sort of crazy if you think of the vast difference in the quality of the education, and the nature of the education. It’s a step towards diminishing the value of a Purdue University education.

I see in the petition that one of your concerns is about the quality of education at Purdue University Global. However, hasn’t Kaplan University long been accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, which also accredits Purdue University? What is your concern about quality and where does that come from?

I was actually very disappointed in the Higher Learning Commission. I have come to the conclusion that accreditation by this particular organization isn’t all that demonstrative of educational quality.

There is, in essence, no academic freedom at Purdue University Global. They have a boilerplate statement that they’ve taken from somewhere else. But it doesn’t have any real meaning in the absence of protections that are in place at a place like Purdue University. And I think that’s intentional.

The chancellor of Purdue University Global argued that faculty there know what they’re getting into, and they don’t object to teaching something from a common curriculum?

This is not the sort of corporate structure that Purdue University should be associating with. There’s just no comparison. It does not belong in the Purdue University system. It is an end run around academic freedom. It’s an end run around tenure and normal criteria for promotions and job protection.

The other thing the chancellor of Purdue University Global argued is that it’s unfair to paint all for-profits with the same brush. She said that Kaplan University had positive outcomes for students, even though other for-profits may have been bad actors.

There were problems with Kaplan’s recruiting [practices]—they had to change things in the past. Are they not as bad as others? Well, how would we know? What’s the average GPA at Purdue University Global? I don’t know—nobody knows. What are the standards for grading? How likely is it that somebody will fail? I’ve been told by people that they are discouraged from failing people because it means that they won’t be getting revenue from them in the future. [Purdue University Global officials dispute this claim, saying in a statement: “This is not a practice of Purdue Global’s administrators, as it is ethically wrong and not in the best interest of our students.”]

The chancellor said she hoped to convince Purdue University faculty over time that their system works. Do you know of any of your colleagues who have changed their mind based on what they have seen so far?

The approach has been one of resignation, not of acceptance. So I know of very few faculty who see this as a positive for Purdue University. I hear from alumni and from parents of students who don’t think that this is a positive, and they are no more convinced.

When Purdue University Global first emerged, if you looked at the website—it’s subsequently been changed because there was so much concern about it—but the Global website was talking about how Purdue is one of the top-five ranked public universities, and it’s a world-class education—none of which applies to Kaplan. It’s irrelevant to Kaplan. Now that’s subsequently been changed, but that was the marketing.

What about the argument that nonprofit traditional higher education moves too slowly, and that a for-profit model could be more nimble and better serve adult students trying to get a job or boost their career?

These arguments—they sound convincing on the surface, but there’s no matter there. And then the idea that they can be more dynamic: More dynamic to what end? More dynamic in order to generate more profit? They’re not more dynamic because they’re going to serve the students’ interests better. What’s the evidence for that?

There’s simply no evidence that taking over this entity is going to improve its operation, improve the education.

And what’s the next step at this point? Isn’t Purdue University Global pretty much a done deal?

Legally it’s a done deal, as far I can tell. But it is part of the purpose of the University Senate to continue to be an advocate for the instructors at all of the Purdue units.

I actually believe that the faculty is the university. It’s not the administrators who are the university, and it’s not even the students. Because the students, they come, and they go. It is the faculty that provides the institutional continuity. And so we are the ones who are most concerned about the reputation of Purdue University.I think this is a reputational issue.

And so I think that [means we will continue] trying to monitor what’s happening at Purdue Global, and trying to get as much information about it, and speaking out when these things are inconsistent with the values that we espouse as a public educational institution.

It’s not necessarily that Purdue University Global is going to go away. I think it can be improved, and the only way it can be improved is by dialogue and exchange, discussion and perseverance. We can’t just let it go. We can’t just say, “Okay, it has the Purdue name, but it has nothing to do with Purdue. We’re not concerned about it whatsoever.” That would not be a responsible position on the issue.

Could you imagine a scenario where you were invited as faculty members to be involved with planning, or changing or doing something to have some input with Purdue University Global? Would that be something you’d welcome?


But that hasn’t happened, I take it?

No, because we’re being told that this is completely separate. I mean, in this whole process we’re being told that we are, in essence, irrelevant to the takeover.

For Purdue University, my salary is public information. Everything about what we teach is public information. It’s easy to get access to what sort of research is getting conducted, and so on and so forth.

Try to do that for Purdue University Global. You can’t do it. And that’s deliberate. It is a secretive corporation. There’s no way for anybody to actually investigate what is going on at that corporate entity.

This is antithetical to what academic life is all about. We are about openness and transparency. And the truth, ultimately. And Purdue University Global doesn’t exemplify any of those characteristics.

Editor’s Note: We reached out to Purdue University Global officials to give them a chance to respond to some points made by Sanders. A spokesperson said that: “The rules governing public records requests were really a byproduct of selecting this particular choice of entity. A public benefit corporation like this already falls outside the definition of a ‘public agency’ under Indiana’s public access laws. Since Purdue Global will neither receive nor use any taxpayer funds, the typical rationale for requiring public access does not apply.” The statement added that “Purdue University Global delivers personalized online education tailored to the unique needs of adults who have work or life experience beyond the classroom, enabling them to develop essential academic and professional skills with the support and flexibility they need to achieve their career goals. Everyone at Purdue Global is committed to our mission.”

Also, we did ask if they would release the average GPA of current students, and we were told that for students that have attended for at least a year, it is 3.26.

Disclosure: Graham Holdings, which previously owned Kaplan University and continues to share revenue from Purdue Global University, was an early investor in EdSurge, though they’ve had no hand in our editorial operations.


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