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SEC Chair’s comments (February 23, 2009)

At our last Senate meeting, I promised you an update on issues pertaining to Global Campus. Since we last met, the Senate Executive Committee has had several exchanges with President White, including a lengthy conference call with him, Vice President for Academic Affairs Meena Rao, and two Trustees, Trustee Frances Carroll and Trustee Kenneth Schmidt.

In these exchanges, the SEC has pressed several concerns that follow from the decision by Global Campus to pursue independent accreditation. In order to set the context, let me provide some very brief background.

When the decision was made by this Senate to support the Global Campus initiative, two years ago, it was under what became termed the “partnership model.” All Global Campus degree programs needed to be sponsored by, and developed in partnership with, a unit on one of the campuses, because Global Campus itself did not have the authority to grant degrees. This meant three things:

1. Academic quality control was guaranteed by the review processes on the campuses.

2. Partnerships with Global Campus built overall institutional capacity by bringing Global Campus technical and support staff into contact with faculty in partnering units on the campuses.

3. The programs produced by these partnerships complemented, and did not conflict with, other degree programs (whether online or on-campus) offered by the partnering units.

The decision by Global Campus to pursue independent accreditation, SEC believes, puts each of these three conditions at risk. While there is widespread agreement that the partnership model did not work in producing the diversity and number of programs Global Campus wanted, there are very different diagnoses about why that was the case.

In our exchanges with President White, SEC has been very clear that this campus fully supports his mission of expanding access to affordable higher education opportunities for qualified students. But today – unlike two years ago, perhaps – this mission does not depend solely or even primarily on Global Campus. The three campuses, including this one, have robust and growing online initiatives. The totality of their online efforts dwarf what Global Campus has produced. So it is a fallacy to claim – as has been claimed – that the campuses are uninterested in developing online programs or that Global Campus is filling a vacuum.

What is true is that these new and existing campus programs, by and large, don’t see the need or benefit of doing so under the auspices of Global Campus. If the millions of dollars invested in Global Campus had been used to support campus initiatives, we would be much farther along than we are toward meeting the President’s goal of expanding affordable access to an online University of Illinois degree.

SEC has identified as one major concern the initial “Academic Policy Council” (APC) – the Senate-like entity Global Campus is creating to satisfy statutory and Higher Learning Commission requirements (the Higher Learning Commission is the accrediting body of the North Central Association). Currently the APC is drafting its Constitution and ByLaws. The APC would be, in practice, the primary mechanism for academic quality control, accountability, and faculty governance within Global Campus, and so its composition and activities are a central concern for all the Senates of the University of Illinois.

The SEC has pointed out that only representatives of programs with a direct financial stake in Global Campus are included on the APC; and in some cases individuals with a direct financial stake. Clinical staff employees of Global Campus are members of the APC. The Chair of the APC has been appointed by the Global Campus administration. And all of these members are paid an additional stipend for serving on the APC. None of this is likely to produce the kind of rigorous, independent review that a Senate must provide in our university’s system of shared governance. Indeed, one person on Senates Conference suggested that the APC is more like a Board of Directors than a Senate. (This isn’t a criticism of the individuals; it is a structural problem.)

To remedy this situation, our SEC and the University Senates Conference both unanimously recommended that the membership of the APC be supplemented by one voting member (unpaid) from each of the three campus Senates, to provide an independent voice and perspective and to maintain a closer liaison with the Senates. The Senates Conference meets with President White on this issue two days from now, and we are awaiting the results of that discussion.

A second concern, also raised by both SEC and the University Senates Conference, is that a separately accredited Global Campus, pursuing its own natural self-interest, could act not to significantly increase overall online enrollments and institutional capacity, but to jeopardize successful program efforts on the campuses by directly competing with and underpricing them. This concern has been raised repeatedly by campus and college level administrators across the three University of Illinois campuses.

This concern is no longer hypothetical. We know that Global Campus is developing spinoffs of existing partnership programs that it is running without consulting with or involving the original partnering unit. We know that it is initiating its own new degree programs in areas where there are already successful campus online programs. Even more troubling, we know that Global Campus is hiring individual faculty from the campuses to develop new programs for Global Campus rather than for their own employing home unit – indeed, programs that might directly compete with their home unit. If that isn’t a conflict of commitment and conflict of interest, then nothing is.

It is also a serious problem that this faculty recruitment is sometimes happening without adequate administrative approval or consultation with the faculty member’s home unit, which is further eroding the relationship of Global Campus to the campuses.

And, as should be obvious, this is reducing the capacity of the campuses rather than enhancing it.

Frankly, that is what happens when an initiative like this is pursuing its own self-interest regardless of the consequences for the campuses. Some say, Well don’t the three campuses in some sense “compete” with each other? I don’t really think so. But in any event Global Campus is not a campus; it is an academic unit within the University Administration, which belongs to all the University of Illinois. Its original mission was to extend the reach of the university, not to compete for resources within.

To try to address this situation, both SEC and the University Senates Conference have unanimously recommended the formation of a university-level committee, under the Vice President for Academic Affairs office, that looks at these issues of articulation, potential conflict, and unnecessary competition between Global Campus activities and the online initiatives of the three campuses.

The rational goal for the University of Illinois as a whole should be to create a broad, rich, and diverse portfolio of online programs, across Global Campus and the three formal campuses, which to the greatest extent possible complement and do not conflict with one another. Unfortunately, the preoccupation with making Global Campus a success is coming at the expense of the well-being of the three campuses. This is a formula not only for a failed Global Campus initiative, but also for an endless series of fights between Global Campus and the campuses, to the detriment of all.

The proposal to establish such a coordinating committee, not as part of Global Campus, but in the VPAA’s office, is a second initiative Senates Conference will be discussing with President White on Wednesday.

Finally, a draft Constitution has been completed for the Senate-like Academic Policy Council, and its ByLaws are forthcoming. While our Senate doesn’t have a direct voice in that, I can assure you that University Senates Conference is looking very closely at those documents – since once approved the APC would be conducting itself pretty much by its own rules.

I think everyone acknowledges that Global Campus is a unique sort of entity that does not fit exactly within the statutory definition of a campus, and so its “Senate” cannot be exactly like a Senate. Nevertheless, the principles of academic quality control, accountability, and faculty governance are not different, and all of us have a stake in ensuring that these principles are properly served by whatever rules and procedures the APC adopts.

On Friday, the Global Campus’s own Advisory Committee voted 6-0, with two abstentions, to withhold approval of the APC, its Constitution, and its ByLaws.

So, to sum up, the three guarantees that were built into the original partnership model for Global Campus – academic quality control, building institutional capacity, and pursuing complementarity rather than conflict and competition with the campuses – are now in some doubt as a result of the decision by Global Campus to pursue independent accreditation. The SEC and University Senates Conference have made some constructive proposals to try to ameliorate these problems. We have not heard yet what the President’s and Global Campus’s responses will be. Depending on those reactions, we might need to recommend further action by this Senate.

The SEC sees a viable role for Global Campus as part of an overall university strategy for expanding online education, but it is a complementary role, developing programs in areas where the campuses can’t or don’t want to develop programs themselves. The Global Campus is not, and cannot be, the overarching framework for all our online efforts.

One thing is certain: Global Campus and its relation to the campuses is in a very troubled state right now. SEC is determined to try to seek an outcome that allows for the legitimate pursuit of independent interests, to the extent that it does not produce a conflict of interests.

Nicholas Burbules
SEC Chair