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WEMU Special Report: Eastern Michigan University And Academic Partnerships


In November 2016, Eastern Michigan University entered into a Master Service Agreement with Academic Partnerships.  According to the contract, which has an effective date of 09/01/2016, AP will act as the marketing arm for EMU’s online degree programs.  Payment to AP is made in the form of revenue sharing: 50% of revenue derived from students who enroll in specific online programs over the next five years will go to AP (47% in the case of EMU’s RN-BSN program).  Online program management providers are not a new phenomenon in higher education, nor are online only programs (EMU had 19 fully online programs prior to this agreement).  This contract, however, has raised many questions across the campus community.  What is Academic Partnerships?  How did EMU come to the decision to enter into this contract? Why are the faculty unions now publicly expressing concerns over this contract?  What happens next? 

What is Academic Partnerships?

Academic Partnerships is an Online Program Management company.  In short, they are part of a “crowded” sector of private companies that collaborate with public universities to help them create, market, and execute online-only degree programs.  Their services run the gamut from one-off, general contractor, fee-based providers to full service, revenue share partners (see this chart for comparison data).  OPMs are part of growing trend of private companies that “profit off education at nonprofit schools.” According to a 2015 survey, (results presented graphically here) as many as 80% of online education programs at more than 2,600 public universities are being outsourced to online program managers.  An estimated 85% of students who study at least partially online are at public schools and receive federal compensation.  This means millions of dollars in federal loans are being used to finance OPMs. 

The best place to start with Academic Partnerships is with its founder, Randy Best.  Even though he is functionally illiterate (he suffers from acute dyslexia), Best managed to create his first successful business before he graduated from Lamar University in 1967.  Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor and investor in some of Best’s ventures, including Academic Partnerships (he held a board position at AP until 2015 when he began his presidential campaign in earnest), has described him as “a classic American entrepreneur.”  Over the next 30 years he moved from class rings to cheerleading supplies to agricultural and medical ventures (just to name a few), including the 1984 founding of a private merchant bank with a number of powerful political and business leaders. 

In 1994 Best shifted his attention to helping public education.  He started a nonprofit, Voyager Expanded Learning, and offered after-school learning programs to schools in the Dallas area.  After two years of slow growth, Best found a group of investors to relaunch Voyager as a for-profit venture.  Business started to pick up.  According to Best, “If you become a for-profit, then every single person in the organization is incentivized to do what you are trying to do.  Their rational self-interest is at stake; it is not just always trying to do something for the greater good”. Randy Best also sought to grow Voyager’s political connections with a goal of, in Best’s words, getting “access to tell your story”.  For example, during the 2000 election cycle, Voyager employees and lobbyists contributed about $80,000 to the campaign of Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.).  In 2001 she was instrumental in earmarking $2 million in funding for the D.C. school district that could only be spent with Voyager Expanded Learning.

One of Voyager’s investors was Charles Miller who worked with then Texas Governor George W. Bush.  Miller assisted the governor’s office in designing a new reading program for public schools, the Texas Reading Initiative.  Best, interested in cutting-edge literacy research, shifted Voyager’s focus in 1998 from an after-school learning program to a reading program, bringing on board researchers who had ties to the Texas Reading Initiative.  Two years later, Charles Miller and Randy Best signed up as Bush Pioneers, a system devised by Karl Rove for people that would commit to gathering at least $100,000 for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. 

The Bush Presidency saw the creation of the No Child Left Behind Act, requiring states to develop basic skills assessments for all students at select grade levels to receive federal school funding.  President Bush’s education team included many that were involved with the Texas Reading Initiative and Voyager directly. This included former Houston schools superintendent Rod Paige, selected as secretary of education, and G. Reid Lyon, a Texas Reading Initiative researcher who helped create Reading First, a federal program, mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act, that allocated billions of dollars in funding for schools that use “scientifically based” reading instruction.

Voyager benefitted greatly from its move to a reading program and the timing of the Reading First mandate.  Soon the company was doing tens of millions of dollars in revenue each year through state level contracts, funded by grants coming from the Reading First program.  In a time where states were struggling to meet the requirements of Reading First, Voyager became a trusted partner.  Once they became known as a part of a path to success in these funding requests, other states began to follow suit.  That success directly benefitted Randy Best when, in early 2005, he sold Voyager to ProQuest for $360 million.

By this point, Best was fully committed to for-profit education ventures.  Shortly after Voyager was sold, Best started the fully online American College of Education, a subsidiary of Higher Ed Holdings.  According to their literature: “Founded in the digital age, American College of Education exists to improve education across the United States through online bachelor's programs, graduate programs, and professional development for educators.”  Among their current offerings is a “Master of Education Leadership” program and a “Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Healthcare Administration.” 

In September 2005, Hurricane Rita did more than $50 million in damage to Best’s alma mater, Lamar University.  Student enrollment dropped by 6% following the disaster.  Administrators began to reach out to alumni to ask for financial assistance to begin the rebuilding effort.  A high school classmate of Best’s, “Jimmy” Simmons, headed Lamar during that time.  In an interview with Forbes in 2014 he said, "Rita dealt us a terrific financial blow. But at the same time we realized that we had a larger problem: a diminishing number of regional high school students in the pipeline. In order for us to continue to have any growth, we were going to have to have a different business and recruitment plan.

Randy Best saw this as an opportunity for Lamar.  Why try to rebuild campus enrollment when the whole world was just a few clicks away from a Lamar education?  With the assistance of Higher Ed Partnerships, Lamar started offering online-only courses in 2007 (some of their classes have now grown to as large as 2,000 students).  That collaboration, which is now operating under the name Academic Partnerships, caught the attention of another University.  The University of Texas at Arlington was looking to address a predicted shortage of RNs in Texas.  Nearly ten years after signing on with Academic Partnerships, they have grown the nursing program from 137 on-campus students to more than 19,000 enrolled online and on-campus.  

Best’s rise to success in the world of OPM’s hasn’t been without issues.  Voyager was called the “Halliburton of K-12 education” by critics of their federal programs.  In 2007, the United States Department of Education released a study saying, “Voyager Universal Literacy System® was found to have potentially positive effects on alphabetics and potentially negative effects on comprehension.” In 2009, the University of Toledo killed a deal with Higher Ed Holdings due to what they called a “lack of alignment between faculty who opposed the plan and administrators who embraced it.” (WEMU reached out to the University of Toledo for comment and they had not provided any information related to the AP deal by the time this was published) In 2010, a former president of the Arkansas State University system revealed he was now employed by Academic Partnerships.  Leslie Wyatt had previously been criticized for entering into an agreement with Academic Partnerships without faculty input, creating a divide that led to very public disagreements.  This included a faculty member that “resigned from an academic committee in protest, proclaiming: ‘I simply refuse to be part of this HEH scam.’”  In 2011, Cuyahoga Community College stopped a deal with Academic Partnerships after getting “pushback from faculty.” A few years into its 20-year contract, Ohio University terminated its agreement with Academic Partnerships saying, at the time, “we found over time that the quality and level of service our students expected was not being met.” (WEMU reached out to OU for comment and, while they were able to confirm that this contract appeared to be their 2008 agreement, they were unable to provide further comment due to provisions within the contractual agreement.)

Academic Partnerships, through its Vice President, Brand Marketing, declined the opportunity to participate in this discussion and issued the following statement:

“Thank you for reaching out. We appreciate the opportunity to respond to the discussion.

Given that this is a dispute between EMU Administration and the Faculty Union, we would prefer that the discussion and its resolution remain between those two parties. We will continue to work productively to support EMU Administration and Faculty according to their requests.

As clarification, the mission of Academic Partnerships is to assist public universities who seek to increase access to their programs for working adults through the online delivery of instruction. The services AP provides focus on marketing, recruitment, retention and the support of faculty in online course conversion if requested. All curriculum, content, admission decisions and academic instruction remain 100% the responsibility of faculty and all intellectual property always remains under their control.

AP believes that online and face-to-face modalities can both have excellent student outcomes and are not mutually exclusive.  They simply serve different populations of learners, all who wish to advance in their lives and careers by earning a higher-level credential.”

Randy Best has a vision for higher education that includes more access for more students.  From a 2014 Forbes interview, "’The whole idea of exclusiveness, as if it's some kind of virtue to turn down large numbers of students, seems like a moral dilemma for a public institution, doesn't it?’ he asks, eyebrows arched. ‘They do consider it a virtue. But turning students away, historically, was based on a limited number of seats. You wanted the best students for those seats. Today, thanks to the Internet, you have unlimited seats. Exclusiveness is going to lead some universities to extinction. Inclusiveness is the future.’"

Academic Partnerships’ recommended path to that future, as shown in documents sent to EMU administrators and made public by the EMU-AAUP, includes:

-          Lowering admission standards

-          Lowering tuition

-          Going 100% online with marketable programs

-          Utilizing a “carousel model” of semesters with six start times per year

-          Shortening program lengths to 12-18 months

-          Removing enrollment caps

-          Utilizing virtual teaching assistance provided in the form of coaches provided by Instructional Connections, a subsidiary of Academic Partnerships.

Geoff Larcom, EMU’s Executive Director, Media Relations told WEMU that the “documents are basically checklists of possible elements a program can involve – AP's preferred requirements. The items constitute an ideal scenario in which a program can most likely flourish, based on AP's extensive experience in this area. But what elements are eventually implemented remain under the control of the EMU program leader. We would sit down with the leader of a given program, say nursing, and then decide what elements best fit how they want to approach the online program.” Statements from AP (see above) and EMU concur, the intent of the agreement is that all decisions regarding whether to adopt AP’s recommended processes remain with the individual departments at EMU.

Why are the faculty and lecturer’s unions at EMU concerned about this contract?

On December 22, 2016, Eastern Michigan University issued a press release detailing an agreement with Academic  Partnerships.  Judith Kullberg, now President of the EMU-AAUP, remembers the day well, “I was actually sitting at home listening to Michigan Radio and they announced that Eastern Michigan university was entering into an agreement with a company called Academic Partnerships to offer a completely online degrees and that was the first that I'd heard of it… I was still president of the faculty senate at that time.  And had just been elected president of the AAUP.”  Her immediate reaction was surprise and concern.  She was worried that the deal could negatively impact the working conditions of the faculty she represents and the quality of education EMU offers.  Kullberg wanted information, and, as far as she and the president of the EMU chapter of the Federation of Teachers were concerned, it was an issue that neither of them had been contacted prior to this agreement being put into place. 

In case you are wondering why EMU has two separate unions devoted to teaching staff, here is a quick primer on who they are and what they do.  The EMU chapter of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) was formed in 1974 as the bargaining unit for the professorial staff of Eastern Michigan University.  This includes all tenure track faculty: instructors, assistant professors, associate professors and professors.  EMUFT is the Eastern Michigan University chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.  Their members are full and part time lecturers on EMU’s campus; in other words, non-tenure track teaching staff. 

Daric Thorne, President of the Eastern Michigan University Federation of Teachers (FT), expressed a similar sense of concern over this lack of communication, “Three years ago or at any point, the administration could have approached our unions, our leadership and sat us down and had a conversation. And engaged us at the table in good faith about a conversation about the structure of instruction at this campus and what plans they had and how we could collaborate together to create a successful instruction environment for our students.” 

That perception of a lack of transparency triggered concerns within the instructional staff they represent.  They had several questions about the scope of the contract and how it would impact the teaching conditions and standards at EMU.  AAUP and FT approached the administration and asked them to privately negotiate the implementation of the contract.  The unions were not satisfied with the response.  According to Kullberg, “Then, faculty filed grievances, so we filed those grievances, we went through the grievance process and the whole goal of the grievance process is to arrive at a resolution of the grievance. This was all internal, no publicity on any of this. All internal. We tried to negotiate through this grievance process, arrive at a resolution, they made us go through every step, they dragged out the process every way that they could. They did not seriously attempt to resolve these grievances, they denied them at every step.

Kullberg also detailed attempts at working on a letter of agreement with the office of Academic Human Resources at EMU, “They would not make modifications to the letter and specifically, they would not put in writing that they would not employ coaches. They refused to put that in the letter of agreement so our executive committee looked at what they had offered and they had said…  And we said, ‘We can't accept this.’”  

The use of supplementary instructors was just one of the unions’ concerns, most of which deal with Academic Partnerships’ recommended best practices.  How they came to discover AP’s recommendations to EMU was also a point of consternation.  To really dig into the details of how this contract came to be and how AP was interacting with the administration, they filed requests for information under provisions from the Michigan Public Employees Relations Act.  Kullberg details the process, “It was only because an administrative law judge ordered the university to give us this information that we received it. So kind of going back to how we're looking at all of this, why has the university been so secretive about this entire contract? Why haven't they provided us with information? What are they hiding?”  These concerns were clearly being amplified by the sometimes contentious environment that has existed on EMU’s campus for decades and reflective of a fundamental mistrust of actions and motives of the administration by the leadership of the faculty and lecturer’s unions. 

The programs listed in the addendum to the contract between AP and EMU raised further concerns with the faculty and lecturer’s unions.  Among them were concentrations of the Individualized Studies programs at EMU where students could earn Bachelor of General Studies degrees completely online.  Kullberg’s impression of the intent of these degrees, agreed to by the Faculty Senate in 2015, did not match up with what was now being promoted,

“So when it was presented to us by Provost Longworth, who was then the Associate Provost, it was very much presented as a program that would be intended for a few students who were our students who were having problems putting a degree together just so they could graduate. There was a lot of concern across the university about it. Faculty centers didn't want to support it, we talked about it three or four times in senate. And then because we were being told it was going to be for a small number of students, don't worry about it, it's gonna be okay, we said, ‘Okay, we approve this degree.’ And now we find that this is going to be a completely online degree, marketed for the masses, apparently intended for very large numbers of people. That's why Academic Partnerships wants it, because they want to make money, they want as many students as possible in these degree programs and so many members of the senate right now are saying, ‘This is not what we approved. We did not approve this and we really don't want this.’ And the reason for that is that anyone that's teaching an online course could potentially be contributing to this completely online degree.”

Adding to these concerns is that the BGS degree program is not overseen by any academic department at EMU. Marketing of these degree programs as a new online-only offering at EMU has not, however, necessitated any changes to Eastern’s curriculum.  It is made up completely by offerings from the list of more than 400 online courses that existed prior to the creation of the AP contract, none of those courses have had their capacities expanded to accommodate greater numbers of students, and they are all being taught by EMU faculty and lecturers hired under the terms of existing labor agreements. 

Despite numerous public statements from EMU that AP’s recommendations were just that, recommendations, and that EMU would leave decisions regarding these points of contention to the individual departments, the unions still held that their concerns were valid and that the potential for workplace violations were not being adequately addressed.  They went with their next available option to resolve the issues, arbitration.  And, while that process was pending (and has not yet concluded), they were surprised to see signs that EMU was still moving forward with the AP marketing plan. Ads started appearing online and on buses in Ypsilanti.  That’s when the unions decided to take their concerns public.  The #FalseEMU campaign began in earnest on November 15.  It sought to shine a light on the potential they saw for outside instructors, coaches provided through AP’s partnership with Instructional Connections, to be teaching students instead of EMU faculty and lecturers.  It pointed out their concerns over the possible diminished quality of an EMU degree if AP’s recommendations were followed. And it brought a lot of public reaction, some of it quite negative in its sentiments against EMU.  Kullberg is adamant that their intent was not to harm EMU.  Thorne agrees, he does not want to do the University harm, but feels that their backs were against the wall, “When the administration doesn't want to meet with us, when they're not calling us to the table to ask us to engage in these conversations, we have little recourse…  It's a problem and we don't want to have to go to the media. Yeah of course we don't want to hurt the university.”

You can find a full transcript of the interview that Patrick Campion held with Judith Kullberg and Daric Thorne here.

How did EMU come to the decision to enter into a contract with Academic Partnerships?

As pointed out by the AAUP and FT union representatives, one of their concerns is a perceived lack of transparency by the administrators at EMU regarding how exactly this contract developed and why Academic Partnerships was chosen.  It not unusual for Eastern’s administration to negotiate agreements like this privately, but the union representatives contend this should have been handled like the decision to switch EMU’s online learning platform to the Canvas learning management system.   Judith Kullberg described how that scenario unfolded, “A special committee was put together in the Faculty Senate to review the various programs that were available and they opted for Canvas, so the University came to Faculty Senate, Faculty Senate put together a committee, those members reviewed the options and provided a recommendation and the University went forward with that.”

Eastern Michigan University’s current Provost, Rhonda Longworth, holds that her role in the negotiations with Academic Partnerships was to insure the agreement would not, in any way, change who has control of academic standards at EMU, and that “resides primarily with the faculty in conjunction with the academic administration. We worked really hard to make sure that the language did that and was clear around that. I couldn't have supported a contract that gave that kind of control to another institution/company.”  Discussions about this type of language did not happen, though, until several years into a process that began before Longworth was named Provost.

According to EMU’s Vice President for Enrollment Management, Kevin Kucera, conversations began at the administration level about five years ago that eventually led this agreement.  These were part of the University’s continued efforts to adapt to changing market conditions in the world of higher education, especially for institutions that serve a large population of non-traditional students. 

“What's been going on in the marketplace is that more of those non-traditional students have shifted, and they're making a decision right off the bat that they want to do an online program. They're not in competition with, 'Oh should I do a ground based program at Eastern Michigan or do their online program,' what they're saying is that 'I want to do an online program' and so they're searching and they're seeing names pop up, and we didn't have a strong presence with that. That was one of the reasons why. You've got a population of 2.5 million adult learners, 19% of every college degree right now is being done by students that are doing that degree totally online.” (EMU’s Kevin Kucera)

They took a look at the state of competition in this new marketplace, and realized that, even though EMU had online offerings and some marketing capital devoted to them, it was not enough to build significant growth in the University’s online student enrollment.  EMU’s Provost at the time, Kim Schatzel, came to the conclusion that they were coming into this market late.  The investment it would take to be competitive, and quickly, was significant enough that the idea of finding a partner in that venture was very attractive.  They wanted a company that would bring the financial capital to get a large-scale marketing effort up and running.  The concept, according to Kucera, was “we (EMU) would supply the academic capital, the academic talent, and the company would bring us students and spend their resources to bring us students.”

This is what led EMU administrators to begin, about three and a half years ago, investigating OPMs.  A committee of five administrators, including Kevin Kucera, was put together to take a look at available options.  Kucera describes how that process unfolded, “we had a lot of internal discussions about that and we wound up interviewing a number of vendors on the phone, we had a number of in house presentations from vendors, and in the end we had a committee of five administrators, myself included that reviewed two written proposals that were submitted. One was from academic partnerships, and the other was from a company called Deltak, so in the end those were the final two that really submitted written proposals.”  They got to this point in the process fairly quickly, and the committee ended up recommending entering into negotiations with AP over Deltak (now Wiley Education Services) due to, by their understanding, AP’s larger presence in public education. 

Details and services were discussed, presentations were made by Academic Partnerships to EMU administrators, and a contract was submitted.  Kucera recalls that it was Provost Schatzel that told him it was not going to move forward at that point, She said basically, didn't give me a lot of reasons associated, but she thought she and President Martin felt that it just wasn't the right time to do it.” And this was not the last time a contract from Academic Partnerships failed to make it past the desk of Provost Schatzel.  Kucera went on to say that, about six months after the first contract failed, Schatzel felt the timing would be better to enter into an agreement, “so they did come back and we spent a lot of time again talking about it and a second contract was put forth, but the financial terms in that contract were not overly appealing to President Schatzel. Or excuse me Provost Schatzel. She was still provost at the time. They weren't overly appealing, so again it was a second attempt that was failed.”  That version of the contract, according to Kucera, only included a revenue split on tuition, not tuition and fees, and, when this discrepancy was discovered, AP wanted to renegotiate.  Schatzel wasn’t interested in changing that part of the contract, so the negotiations ended there. 

Provost Schatzel became Interim President Schatzel when Sue Martin resigned in 2015.  In January 2016, following Schatzel’s departure to become President of Towson University, Don Loppnow became the interim President of EMU.  The next month, Eastern Michigan University’s Board of Regents selected James Smith as EMU’s 23rd President.  He officially assumed duties in July of 2016, and Kucera says he was asked by Smith to reach out to AP for a third go-round, “And so then when the third contract negotiation happened, that was when Jim Smith had now assumed the role of presidency, and that's when we had a discussion of the possibility of bringing back Academic Partnerships, and I didn't even know if they would be interested after having submitted two contracts previously.” Clearly AP was interested, as, a few months later, EMU and AP would enter into the master service agreement referenced herein. 

During the initial parts of the process that ended with the AP and EMU agreement, which Kucera does not see as a public/private partnership (he calls it a “marketing contract”) he feels the University did a large amount of due diligence.  Kucera spoke with other universities that had been working with AP, “I had conversations with a number of universities, Texas Arlington was one of them. Florida international was another one. Arkansas State was another one. Southeastern Oklahoma state if I remember correctly, so yeah. I also attended a conference in Dallas right about the time we had signed the contract that had about 25 other schools that have been clients with academic partnerships, many of them for a number of years, so sure we had that particular discussion.” He did not detail if they spoke with any of the universities that had failed relationships with Academic Partnerships (or Higher Education Holdings as it was previously known) or whether he was concerned about the issues encountered at Arkansas State University mentioned above.  Rhonda Longworth did not feel that the fact that Higher Education Holdings owns and operates an online-only college was a matter of concern, “I think that's a separate part of their company from the part that we're working with. They have a lot of things that they do. I think when we built the contract and we talked about it those aspects that we worked on were about the terms about our contract with them, and what services they would provide with us.”   They were aware of the large classroom sizes at universities like Lamar, but, as Longworth puts it, that's not a goal that we have.” She pointed out that brick and mortar classes at many institutions offered capacities in the hundreds, and EMU is not interested in doing that either.  “I think we have the power to control that, and our intent is not to get to a point where we're having classes that are that large, or even close to that large I might say. And, so I think I felt that was why academic control and assuring that was such a central piece is that we do have a way that we educate students here, and this is meant to be our brand, our courses, and that's very important. That isn't the model we intend to pursue and that's not the way we're going to go.” Kucera echoes her sentiment in the way he views the contract:

“The service agreement is very explicit about us maintaining control. We can grow the program as we want to grow the program it's that simple. If we don't grow the program fast enough or large enough, that's not an issue. They always have other partners that they work with as well, so we wanted to pick a comfort zone that works well for Eastern Michigan. We want our faculty teaching the courses, we want our students having a quality online educational experience, and all of our instructors are doing the teaching, there are no other faculty members other than Eastern Michigan, our lecturers, our instructors that are doing this and we're very comfortable with that.”

Satisfied that the terms of the contract would not denigrate the quality of education at EMU and that the finances were fairly balanced, they recommended that President Smith sign it.  And he did just that a little more than a year ago.  Incidentally, neither Longworth nor Kucera are aware whether Smith conferred with the Board of Regents prior to signing the agreement (he has contractual authority at EMU and is under no obligation to do discuss things of this nature with the Regents).  WEMU sent requests to interview Dr. Smith by way of representatives in EMU’s Communications office on two separate occasions but did not receive a reply.

As for the how Instructional Connections’ coaches will be used as part of this agreement,

Campion:         Is there anything in this contract that will allow for a coach to teach a course without the involvement of faculty?

Longworth:     I mean, my sense and our reading of our labor agreements would say no, that the only people that can be hired to teach are very clearly defined by our labor agreements and we follow our labor agreements.

Campion:         And, just for a basis of comparison, I just wanted to let you know, I don't know if you've seen the Ohio University contract, actually had clauses in it where in Academic Partnerships or the version of Academic Partnerships incorporated in Ohio that they entered into agreement with could hire faculty. There is no such provision in this contract.

Longworth:     No. Absolutely not.

Kucera:             No, and that contract that you referred to was how many years ago?

Campion:         Eight.

Kucera:             Yeah, so the business market and the business model has changed for academic partnerships as well over that eight year time period.

Campion:         Well, and they offer different services to different schools. They don't offer the same thing.

Longworth:     Absolutely, and our agreement is absolutely clear that all of the instructors are hired by Eastern Michigan University, which means that they're hired under our collective bargaining agreements, and we have every intention of never changing that.

Campion:         And, if an instructor does choose to use a coach and is unhappy with that coach’s services, there are remedies for that as well.

Longworth:     Sure. Right now, we don't have any coaches in action, and I'm not expecting that to happen at all. We have a specific provision in our collective bargaining agreement that doesn't allow anyone into an instructor’s course, without the instructor's permission, so absolutely you would have to have that permission to do that.

As for the rumors that some in EMU’s Administration benefitted financially from entering into this venture,

Kucera:             I have no personal financial interest in this at all.

Campion:         As far as you're aware, no one in this university has any financial interest in Academic Partnerships, Higher Ed holdings, any of their individual-

Kucera:             Heck no, not to my knowledge.

Campion:         All right, so no one here benefits personally.

Longworth:     No.

Campion:         You benefit professionally by bringing in more students.

Kucera:             Correct.

And, while Kucera was employed by the University of Toledo when they entered into failed contract negotiations with Academic Partnerships over a decade ago, he says he only had peripheral knowledge of those dealings and was not directly involved in the project. 

You can read the transcript of the interview Patrick Campion held with Kevin Kucera and Rhonda Longworth here

What has happened since the agreement was put in place?

[Editor’s note: WEMU attempted contact with a large cross section of those involved in and possibly affected by this agreement.  No reply (or a declined invitation) was received from personnel representing the College of Business, nursing program, Faculty Senate, office of Extended Programs, etc.  This is in addition to those listed above that did not participate for a variety of reasons.  The content in this section represents a summary of the comments received in the two interviews above, several informal conversations had with personnel that did not wish to be quoted directly but were happy to provide background information, publicly available information, and an in depth interview with Dr. Ron Flowers and Dr. Jim Berry regarding the Masters of Educational Leadership program.  You can find a full transcript of that interview here.  WEMU has also submitted FOIA requests to Eastern Michigan University to obtain access to email records pertinent to this investigation.  An initial request was denied due to a lack of specificity.  A subsequent request was approved with a 60 business day time estimate to return the records.  A fee waiver request was denied in relation to that second FOIA request.  WEMU has decided, at this time, to not pursue additional FOIA records because of the extended response timeline and lack of budget to finance the more than $7,000 in fees required by the University.  WEMU has not received any of the more than 14,000 records obtained by the FT and AAUP unions other than those that have been made public by their representatives. Unattributed information contained in this section has been verified by at least two independent sources.]

EMU’s agreement with Academic Partnerships, signed in November 2016, has now been in effect since September 2016.  In the months leading up to the agreement being signed, and the year since, several meetings have taken place between department representatives and the marketing team at Academic Partnerships.  The tone and tenor of these meetings has been described similarly by all involved.  AP makes suggestions regarding programs that they feel would be marketable to a large audience along with adaptations to existing practices which would further enhance the “marketability” of the programs.   The department, with input from faculty, comes to a decision independently on how they’d like to proceed.  That decision is passed back to AP and EMU administrators, and that is the end of the process.  Of the 14 programs listed in the addendum to the agreement between AP and EMU, seven will not be pursued (at least for now), and two, in existence before the agreement, are actively being marketed by AP (the RN-BSN and M. Ed. Leadership programs).  The remaining five are differentiations of the Bachelors of General Studies programs.  In addition to these private meetings with AP, there have been two online education professional development meetings held on campus.  These were organized by both EMU faculty and representatives from Academic Partnerships and, according to Longworth, were well attended.

The College of Business declined the opportunity to work with Academic Partnerships, choosing, for now, to not create any version of an online-only MBA.  Nursing decided to allow AP to market the existing RN-BSN program without making any adaptations to their existing educational standards, but chose not to pursue the creation of an MSN Educator or RN-MSN Educator online-only program.  Education chose to allow AP to market their existing Masters of Educational Leadership program without making any adaptations to their exiting educational standards, but will not, for now, work on creating an online-only M.Ed. C&I program.  The BGS programs, overseen by an Academic Vice President in the office of EMU’s Provost along with the director of University Advising, utilize a suite of online-only courses that were available prior to the agreement with AP. 

WEMU has found no evidence that any new courses have been added to EMU’s catalog to accommodate this agreement.  WEMU has found no evidence that there have been any changes to admission standards to accommodate this agreement.  WEMU has found no evidence that previously existing academic standards, such as course capacity, have been changed to accommodate this agreement.  WEMU has found no evidence that Instructional Connections coaches are being used in any form as part of an EMU course.  WEMU has found no evidence that the agreement between AP and EMU varies in any significant way from industry standards in regards to public institution agreements with OPM entities other than the shorter timeline (five year timelines fall at the very bottom of time scales typically found in these agreements) and the restrictions placed on who is responsible for making decisions related to academics (it is common for these agreements to allow OPMs to manage nearly every aspect of online-only programs including course creation and instruction).

The RN-BSN program has added new course sections to accommodate a larger cohort of incoming students. These are all being taught by bargained-for teaching staff hired under the collective bargaining agreements between the unions and Eastern Michigan University.  As of September 2017, that new cohort numbers 100 students, as compared to the 40 each previous cohort had started with.  EMU has already seen a cost savings in marketing this program.  According to Kevin Kucera,  EMU was spending $20,000 a month on “pay per click” advertising to market the program along with having a “foot soldier” in local hospitals recruiting potential students directly.  Academic Partnerships now solely markets the program and EMU has no direct expenses related to marketing that venture. 

The Masters of Educational Leadership program, primarily marketed in the past via “word of mouth” (according to Department Head Ron Flowers) and with a $5,000 departmental marketing budget, is now being marketed by Academic Partnerships.  There appeared to be some confusion at the administrative level regarding the scope of that marketing program.  Longworth and Kucera were under the impression it was being marketed in neighboring states.  Flowers indicated they’re only interested in accepting students who can be licensed in Michigan at the end of the program.  Longworth did indicate that “whatever Dr. Flowers told you would be accurate.” What is clear is that Dr. Flowers, and his department, were not interested in changing how they admit or teach their students in order to attract a larger cohort into the program.  Flowers and Berry shared their thoughts on that subject in detail:

Campion:         And, do you have any concerns at a personal level, your own opinion about this marketing agreement with academic partnerships?

Ron Flowers:   Personally, I mean when they came to me it was an opportunity to put marketing resources that I didn't have, and the university wasn't currently capable of providing, that so, and I'll be real honest, I've met with their vice president, I've had conversations extensively throughout the last three years, and I've made it perfectly clear, that our faculty have certain standards, and there's a level of integrity that we're going to maintain, and at no time will we compromise those. We're not going to alter our admissions policy, we're not going to alter who teaches the classes, or who gets to decide who teaches the class.

             We're also not going to allow anyone to interfere with the, basically because we have to be approved by the state, and we have to be accredited nationally. So you can't mess with our curriculum, and they thought that was very important, that we were licensed, that we were accredited, and that you know, you're not going to decide who passes classes and who earns our degrees. So all those, it's been made very clear to him and I believe it's in the contract that we control the academic affairs side of our courses, and that they're responsible for even in the marketing portion of this. We made it very clear that they won't tell people that we're something that we're not, that we're appropriate for individuals that have degrees that wouldn't align with one of our masters degrees.

             And, the first time I find out you're telling somebody in Indiana that our degree will get them licensed, we're gonna cut the cord. We will no longer have a relationship. And I've made that perfectly clear from the beginning, both in the conversations with AP, and the conversations with the provost and the president's office. And so-

Campion:         Is it concerning to you at all though, that their stated goals of how to improve enrollment in the program differ from your standards?

Ron Flowers:   No, I think their conversations and yeah, I think they came into it and they have historically developed a model. I think over time they've evolved away from it. I'm not going to say they didn't suggest, they didn't bring those to us and say, this is a way to handle if you suddenly have a large increase in enrollment, would you consider doing this, and it's no, we wouldn't consider doing this. And you know, it's been a good relationship in that regard. So you know, I haven't, we haven't and Jim can speak from a faculty standpoint, part of it is because we've been doing it, that no one feels compelled. In fact, those who have chosen not to teach online, and don't want to teach online, don't teach online. They you know, so we're not forcing people to teach classes in a pedagogical, just as I wouldn't think to tell someone who's teaching a face to face class that I find lecturing to be inappropriate, therefore I don't think you should teach that way. I would never think to interfere with a faculty member's academic freedom and their ability to teach as they see fit.

James Berry:   I can't tell you how important it is that, I mean Ron knows this, how strongly I feel that my course shell, my pedagogy, is my pedagogy. I invest a great deal of time in developing these classes, and I tell you we could have a conversation just here. But you know, the point that I want to make in terms of this conversation is that fundamentally, this is a paradigm shift. And it isn't influencing just faculty. It's influencing the administration. They have to understand what's going on out there. And I make the point often that there are a number of faculty, number of administration, who are looking at this change from a distance, and see something that's disruption, and it's a little difficult to grasp, to get their arms around, to understand. And so that's some of what the issue is. It's a misconception, a misunderstanding. And, it's being represented in a certain way, and really, I just want to try and make it as clear as I can that I own my pedagogy.

What are the commonalities among those that are now working with AP vs. those that are not?  They were already offering online-only programs in the “carousel” format that AP prefers.  The carousel model allows for students to join the program at any time during the year by adapting requirements for the order courses must be completed in before moving to another section of the program.  It features six, eight week semesters throughout the calendar year rather than the traditional four (two 13 week semesters in winter and fall along with two shorter terms in the summer).  And these adaptations, in place prior to the AP agreement, allow for students to move through the program in shortened timeframes (for example, 18 months rather than 2-3 years). 

The question has arisen as to why there were programs listed in the contract addendum prior to their being accepted by the individual departments at EMU.  This was discussed with Longworth and Kucera:

Campion:         I want to jump back quickly to the programs. It would seem, and don't presume that I'm jumping to a conclusion here, but it would seem that it would have made more sense to talk to the individual schools or departments first before putting things on paper to see if they would agree to an online MBA, or to see if they would agree to the three nursing programs listed here before, putting them into a contract with academic partnerships was that ever part of this, or was the direction this flowed always the intent?

Longworth:     Well, I mean when we get at the heart of the disagreement that we have with the union right now is about the degree to which those conversations occurred. I think that to a large extent we feel like there were a lot of conversations about whether it would be a good idea to take these programs online or not. While we didn't have every specific conversation about whether AP would be the support organization in terms of marketing the programs, we did talk to these programs at least maybe not every single one, but a lot of them, around whether or not they had interest in an online program. We had been talking about an online program in the MBA area for many years, and in different configurations. We had the nursing programs, we've had conversations with them about taking those programs online. It depends on what you mean when you say have we talked with them, because I think a lot of them we've talked with them about would you like to have an online program.

Campion:         Sure and I guess, in this case, did you approach them to specifically indicate to them as part of the addendum to the contract of Academic Partnerships that you would be indicating a willingness to offer an online program in these specific areas?

Longworth:     I don't think we talked to every one of them, no.

Kucera:             One thing I'd like to interject on that particular question too Patrick, is the fact that Academic Partnerships did a lot of market research. They're not going to invest their own marketing capital in the programs that they feel aren't going to be popular in the marketplace itself, and so that was part of how the partnership was executed based on in an ideal world and scenario based on what the marketplace is showing, the working adult, the teacher, the business person, the nurse, these are the programs that they felt would be very, very well suited for the marketplace in this upper Midwest area and region.

The arbitration between the unions and EMU is in the decision phase and currently pending.  There is a discussion pending in the upcoming week at EMU’s Faculty Senate over whether they should rescind approval of the BGS degree being awarded at the completion of the Individualized Studies program.  According to Longworth, if this does occur, the program will revert back to the BA or BS degree awards which existed previous to the 2015 vote by the Faculty Senate. Academic Partnerships has indicated a commitment to continuing to develop the relationship with EMU, and Kucera describes them as being “happy” despite half the degree programs listed in the addendum not being offered.  The two entities are now more than a year into a five year agreement, and with estimates from 12 months to ten years as for how long it would take a department to create a new online-only program, it’s unlikely that any will be added in the near future.  The online-only programs not included in the agreement continue to be offered at EMU; it is unclear whether the possibility exists of those being included in future addendums or whether they would adapt their standards to include the carousel model mandated by the contract. 

WEMU will update this story as more information becomes available, especially in regards to the pending arbitration decision and the upcoming discussion in the Faculty Senate.