Are We Next?: GMU Administration’s Stealthy Quest to Build a New Privatized Online University

by Bethany Letiecq, Betsy Demulder, and Tim Gibson

March 22, 2019

First published in Academe Blog

On August 24, 2018, George Mason University (GMU) President Ángel Cabrera floated an idea during our faculty convocation. In order to serve more students, especially those who cannot easily access and afford a brick-and-mortar university experience, such as single mothers, full-time workers, and veterans, he was exploring the build-up of a new fully online university akin to Purdue University Global. Like Purdue Global, this “New U” would be a separate legal entity under the Mason brand and would create a private-public partnership to deliver programming to thousands more students searching for upward mobility by earning a Bachelor’s or graduate degree.

GMUs administration is proposing this New U as their solution to the social inequalities that persist in the United States between those with and those without a college degree. As our Provost David Wu recently wrote in his blog, “A lack of access to higher education has, over time, produced an underprivileged population and subsequently a devastating societal divide. As a university for the world, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to this enormous and growing social injustice.” While we agree that there is critical need to redress social inequalities, we question privatizing public higher education as the solution, particularly given recent reports suggesting private companies and their shareholders are benefiting from these structures, rather than students and faculty.

As the leaders of our AAUP advocacy chapter, we have questions, such as: How would this New U be structured? Would it grant tenure to faculty, protecting their academic freedom and promoting a shared governance model? Would Mason’s “brick-and-mortar” faculty members have any involvement or say in the New U’s program offerings and curricula? Would the faculty of the New U control academic affairs?  Would their intellectual property rights be protected? What role would the private partner play? And how does it work when a non-profit public institution partners with a for-profit entity? How are profits derived? Who benefits? And at what cost? With such a private-public merger, what decisions and processes remain public and therefore accessible and transparent to the public (including faculty and students) for input, questions, and public scrutiny?

Hearing our President link his New U vision with that of Purdue Global raised even more questions, particularly given what the AAUP had recently written about the administration of Purdue Global running roughshod over faculty and student rights. Would Mason also require students to consent to forced arbitration agreements as a condition of enrollment? Like Purdue Global, would the New U deny tenure or tenure-track positions to its faculty, instead employing only “fire at will” contingent faculty to teach its curriculum? Would Mason also require its New U faculty to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) as a condition of employment?

As we learned, Purdue Global’s original NDA stated that any work product, including all course materials “or other intellectual property that arises in any part in the course of … employment at Purdue Global, is commissioned and owned by Purdue Global as a work-for-hire and may not be used, duplicated or distributed outside of Purdue Global.” Would Mason also deny its faculty their intellectual property rights and their academic independence?

As David Nalbone, professor of psychology and president of the Indiana conference of the AAUP told us, Purdue Global happened so fast, so stealthily and with such secrecy, that the faculty were caught off guard. Nalbone said that in just one semester, Purdue Global abandoned transparency, shared governance, and academic freedom. And because of the private part of the partnership, Purdue Global is exempted from public records laws that apply to the non-privatized parts of Purdue University. Purdue Global’s internal processes are thus shrouded in additional layers of secrecy. To hear Purdue Global held up as an example for Mason was disturbing indeed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when Mason faculty started asking questions about GMU’s New U venture, we were told that all involved had to sign Mason’s version of an NDA—including our Faculty Senate Chair—and therefore were not at liberty to discuss whatever deal-making was occurring behind closed doors. Faculty have not been informed about or included in discussions between corporate CEOs, university officials, and Virginia’s accrediting bodies that have been hosted by Mason administrators for the past two years now. Would we also “partner” with the likes of Kaplan University as did Purdue University or another private, for-profit entity seeking to, as Bob Shireman of the Century Foundation writes, “convert” itself to a quasi-non-profit to earn legitimacy while gouging vulnerable students and stripping faculty of their academic freedom? And would Virginia accreditors give the green light much like they did in Indiana despite protests from Purdue faculty?

Shireman and others, including Tressie Cottom (author of the book Lower Ed) and David Halperin (of the Republic Report), have begun to document how these for-profit conversion universities advertise their non-profit status as rhetorical cover, while they engage in predatory practices to entice students to enroll and take up financial aid—all to the profit of their private stakeholders. As Halperin asks in his recent piece about these non-profit schools bragging about their profits, “So how is a non-profit school conducting a Wall Street earnings call?”

And how do students fare in these new private-public online universities? The jury is still out at Purdue Global, but recent research on student outcomes at for-profit or conversion online entities suggests that students are vulnerable to significant student debt loads, their retention rates and degree completion rates remain low, and because the perceived quality of their degrees is not as valuable in the labor market as “traditional” brick-and-mortar degrees, their ascension into the middle class and their capture of the American Dream remains tenuous. However, Halperin reports that several of these conversion entities are doing remarkably well financially, recording some of their highest profit earnings to date for their shareholders.

Until we can be assured that these privatized New U ventures are a good solution to persistent social inequalities and are not using predatory practices to target the most vulnerable among us, crippling students with debt and incomplete and/or low-quality degrees; until the university assures faculty access to tenure and protects their academic freedom and shared governance; until the Administration makes the contracts and agreements governing this new venture fully public and transparent, the faculty of Mason’s AAUP chapter will continue to ask tough questions, organize with students and community allies, and fight to keep Mason’s New U from becoming the next Purdue Global.

The guest bloggers are officers of the George Mason University AAUP chapter. Bethany Letiecq is president; Betsy DeMulder is vice-president; and Tim Gibson is secretary-treasurer.