The aggressive advertising of Academic Partnerships, a private firm that contracts with Arkansas State University to provide on-line education, has made Academic Partnerships "ASU's face, ASU's identity and ASU's brand," according to the president of the ASU Faculty Senate.
John B. Zibluk, a journalism professor, said, "When you Google ASU, Academic Partnerships is the first thing you get. It appears on Google ads, Yahoo and even the New York Times ... Its ubiquity makes Academic Partnerships more than a partner."
Zibluk said that Academic Partnerships' influence at ASU was leading the university ever closer toward the privatization of higher education at a public university, and that this needed discussion by faculty and administration. "We've never been able to have that discussion," he said.
Dan Howard, interim chancellor of ASU-Jonesboro, says there's no privatization of education at ASU. ASU faculty and ASU curriculum are used in all its on-line courses, he said, the faculty teaching the classes and grading the tests, while Academic Partnerships does marketing and provides technical support. "ASU provides everything related to academics," he said.
Academic Partnerships receives a percentage of the tuition for the on-line courses, Howard said. He said this was not ASU's only contract with a private company. ASU also contracts with private companies for food services, and operation of the campus bookstore, among other things, he said. (Zibluk also noted the food and bookstore contracts, which he saw as more reason for concern about creeping privatization. One of his concerns is that private companies may be able to thwart the state Freedom of Information law.)
A rather tense exchange about on-line education and Academic Partnerships' involvement has been going on between faculty and administration at ASU for some time. The latest round started when Zibluk and other faculty members discovered a "news release" on various web sites about a new bachelor's degree program being offered at ASU. The headline was "Arkansas State University Works With Academic Partnerships To Put New Bachelor's Degree Program Online." As Zibluk noted, it would be easy for a reader to conclude that the release came from ASU. But the ASU communications office had nothing to do with it. The release was prepared and distributed by Academic Partnerships.
To Zibluk, that's rather important. Howard's response to the discovery of the news release is essentially "So what?" Marketing is part of Academic Partnerships' job, he said. (Academic Partnerships describes itself in the news release as a Dallas-based higher-education service provider that helps state universities "expand access to their programs by converting traditional degree programs to online delivery and recruiting qualified students.")
The new program is an on-line Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies (BSIS). The BSIS program has three areas of study at present – criminal justice, communications and technology – with other "areas of emphasis" to be added later. The degree is already offered at ASU, Howard said. All that's new is that it will now be available on-line.
Zibluk said the administration always argues that it's only rearranging what the university already does. "We've been going back and forth on that one since this whole Academic Partnerships thing got started."
Zibluk said it's untrue that the faculty opposes on-line education generally, as some administrators have said. The faculty recognizes a need for on-line education, he said. Still, Zibluk finds it somewhat unsettling that "You can be in California or China and get an ASU degree on-line without ever being on campus ... We need a discussion about who we want to be."
A journalist's interest was aroused by a statement in the BSIS news release that "the online program makes it possible for students to receive credit hours for military or on-the-job work experience." An old newspaper hack could get college credit for having covered City Hall? The answer is yes, quite possibly, and this arrangement is neither new nor unique to ASU. According to Wikipedia, more than 2,000 colleges and universities participate in the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP). UALR is another. (UALR also has on-line degrees, but does it all in-house.) In CLEP, students who've been working and want to start or go back to college can take examinations in a number of areas, such as American Government, College Composition and Principles of Marketing. If the applicant scores high enough, he can skip college introductory courses and move on to more advanced classes. This allows him to obtain a degree quicker and cheaper than would have been the case otherwise. The Academic Partnerships news release suggests that CLEP could be important in meeting Gov. Mike Beebe's goal of doubling the number of Arkansas college graduates by 2025.
ASU faculty began grumbling about ASU's close relationship with private companies providing on-line services during the administration of former President Leslie Wyatt.
After Wyatt stepped down as president, but was still on paid leave from ASU at $150,000 a year, it was discovered last fall that he was listed as "president and chairman" of a private on-line company affiliated with Academic Partnerships. ASU officials met with Wyatt and he subsequently went on unpaid leave, with announced plans of returning to ASU to teach at some point. He is apparently still connected with Academic Partnerships. Chancellor Howard said he didn't know where Wyatt was, or what he was doing, or when he planned to return to ASU.