Unions battle degree outsourcing at Eastern Michigan State University

Members of the unions representing faculty at Eastern Michigan State University (EMU) in Ypsilanti announced on November 15 that they are launching a media outreach campaign aimed at reversing a decision by the university’s administration to privatize some of its degree programs offered online.

“Without consulting faculty, EMU administrators have contracted with an out-of-state company to offer EMU-branded degrees entirely online,” said Judith Kullberg, president of EMU American Association of University Professors (EMU AAUP). “It appears that much of the actual student contact hours for these online degrees will be provided by online ‘coaches’ who don’t work for EMU and are paid extremely low wages. Our students deserve better.”

EMU in 2016 contracted with Academic Partnerships, a Texas-based company that markets online degrees from public universities that have established partnerships with the company.

Academic Partnerships’ uses low-wage coaches who assist and advise students using the company’s online programmed instruction.

These coaches are employed by an Academic Partnership subcontractor called Instructional Connections.

EMU’s contract with Academic Partnerships allows the company to collect half of the tuition and fees paid by online students that would otherwise go to EMU.

Randy Best is the founder and chairman of Academic Partnerships. Best is a Texas multi-millionaire, who, according to the Texas Observer, used his political connections to build his for-profit education business.

Best’s first foray as an educational entrepreneur was a business that provided online tutoring to public school students.

It grew substantially when Best was able to use his political contacts to sell his tutorial programs to schools trying to meet the goals established by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Best’s next big business venture–Academic Partnerships–provided online instruction that led to degrees at state universities in Texas.

Since then Best has expanded his online education business nationally and internationally.

Daric Thorne, president of EMU American Federation of Teachers, which represents full-time and part-time lecturers, said that there is a place for online instruction in higher education but that “it should never completely replace the outstanding teaching and scholarship we offer right here on campus.”

Academic Partnerships has already begun offering an EMU Bachelor’s degree in nursing and plans  to expand the number of degree plans it offers in January.

Outsourcing degree programs to for-profit businesses has been criticized because it exposes student to hidden risks.

A report by the Century Foundations finds that these kinds of partnerships between public universities and third-party, for-profit companies), “expose (students) to the same risks as for-profit colleges; however, because (the third parties) are operating on behalf of public institutions, none of the protections in place to prevent abuse by the proprietary education industry protect these students. This blindspot leaves consumers vulnerable.”

The report also says that these companies “driven by the desire and need to make money for investors or owners . . . may prioritize profit over the interests of online students, to whom they owe no loyalty, financial or otherwise.”

Ohio University had a contract with Academic Partnerships similar to the one with EMU but terminated the contract well before it was set to expire.

In an email sent to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Randy Leite, dean of Ohio University’s College of Health Science explained why.

“While Academic Partnerships helped us establish and grow our program, we found over time that the quality and level of service our students expected was not being met,” wrote Leite.

Leite added that the decision was made because the university “could better assure quality and service by maintaining (its) own program.”

In addition to being concerned about the quality of education that a for-profit company can provide, the two unions fighting the privatization effort at EMU were disturbed by the lack of transparency in the selection of Academic Partnerships.

Kullberg said that she didn’t know about the contract until she heard about it on a radio news program.

By that time, the contract had already been signed.

After Kullberg heard about the deal, EMU AAUP filed a grievance charging the university with an unfair labor practice by agreeing to the deal without consulting the faculty.

A hearing on the grievance has been held, and the union is awaiting a decision by an independent arbitrator.

In addition to filing a grievance, EMU AAUP and EMU AFT have launched TrueEMUTeaching, a print and online advertising campaign in the Eastern Echo, EMU’s student newspaper, and on Facebook.

The ads link to a petition urging the university’s board of regents to halt further implementation of the contract until more light can be shed on it.

“We have a responsibility – to our colleagues, to our students, to EMU alumni, and to Michigan taxpayers – to raise questions until we get solid answers,” said Kullberg. “The future direction of a public university like EMU should be discussed in the open, not behind closed doors.”

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