The chairman of the U.S. Senate education committee asked the chancellor of Maryland’s state university system Monday to hand over records on enrollment and workplace practices at the University of Maryland University College, where Susan Aldridge resigned as president last week.
Aldridge, 60, offered no specific reason Thursday for stepping down as president of the nation’s largest public online college, with more than 90,000 students studying globally. But she left amid mounting complaints from current and former employees about the workplace environment and academic priorities at the Adelphi institution.
Aldridge shortened course lengths last year and eliminated proctored final exams, decisions that some faculty took as a retreat from academic integrity. Earlier in her tenure, Aldridge oversaw an enrollment effort that university officials now acknowledge was overly aggressive.
Current and former employees say those who asked too many questions were forced to resign and were asked to sign confidentiality agreements in exchange for generous severance packages that some termed “hush money.”
In a three-page letter to William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) wrote that the alleged payments were cause for concern.
He said he was interested, too, in reports of “aggressive marketing and student recruitment tactics” that, taken together, “may have compromised academic quality and program integrity” during Aldridge’s six-year tenure.
University system spokeswoman Anne Moultrie said Kirwan “has received the letter and will respond appropriately.”
Last week, Javier Miyares, UMUC’s acting president, said that the confidentiality agreements are “fairly standard in higher education” and that no one was paid for silence.
Harkin chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He said he wrote to Kirwan out of concern “to safeguard taxpayer dollars.”
Harkin’s panel is the same one that investigated marketing and recruiting practices at for-profit colleges in 2010. Monday’s inquiry reflects a change in direction by focusing on a public, nonprofit college; UMUC competes with for-profit colleges for adult students.
With a large military enrollment, UMUC is the nation’s second-largest recipient of funds from the Defense Department’s Tuition Assistance program and the eighth-largest recipient of dollars from the Post 9/11 GI Bill; the school got $80 million from the two programs last year, Harkin wrote.
Harkin asked Kirwan to provide, by April 16, copies of “any and all” severance agreements signed by UMUC employees since 2006, as well as any confidentiality agreements signed by employees on the job.
Harkin also asked for a list of every student who enrolled at UMUC in the 2008-09 academic year and their enrollment status today, data that will show the school’s relative success or failure in student retention and graduation. State budget documents show a 30 percent completion rate at the college during Aldridge’s tenure. Harkin also asked for details on salary and benefits provided to Aldridge, whose annual salary was $306,800.
Other documents sought by the committee chairman concern the school’s student recruitment efforts. Aldridge hired a recruiting firm in Taiwan to find overseas students on commission, a practice that federal regulations prohibit with domestic students. The contract has expired, and Kirwan said he “never approved” of it.
College officials say Aldridge oversaw a “very aggressive” student recruitment operation early in her tenure. A former administrator said the school received “complaints by the hundreds.”
Harkin asked Kirwan to disclose the number of admission advisers and recruiters employed at UMUC, as well as details on funds paid to third parties for enrollment “leads” and the scale of the college’s overall marketing and advertising budget.