Susan Aldridge resigned Thursday as president of the University of Maryland University College, a month after taking an unexplained leave from the state-supported global school amid mounting dissent about her management style and academic priorities.
Aldridge, 60, said she was leaving simply because the time had come. State university officials offered no further explanation in an announcement laced with plaudits.
“Given all that we have accomplished over the past six years, I think this is a good time to step down,” Aldridge said in a prepared statement. Her resignation will take effect March 31. Javier Miyares, senior vice president for institutional effectiveness, is acting president.
Aldridge came to UMUC in 2006 and burnished its identity as the nation’s largest public online-focused college, according to state university officials, with 92,000 students in 27 nations. A onetime night school, UMUC has evolved into a vast network of adult and military education. The institution granted more than 35,000 degrees during the Aldridge years, with a growing share of those lessons conducted online.
But several current and former employees described an academic culture under Aldridge that prized enrollment and revenue over learning.
Last year, many undergraduate courses were shortened from 14 weeks to eight, and supervised undergraduate final exams were eliminated. UMUC leaders say those changes reflect sound teaching practices. Faculty pay is the lowest in Maryland’s public university system. Meanwhile, the school requested an extra $30 million last year for print, radio and television advertising.
Employees described a work environment under Aldridge that brooked little dissent. They said many workers were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, unusual for a public college, that forbade them to disclose institutional information to anyone inside or outside.
“It was an atmosphere of fear; that’s what really ran the place,” said Spedden Hause, a former academic director at UMUC, who left in 2009.
Those who raised too many questions were told to resign or face termination, the employees said, and those who left voluntarily were rewarded with generous severance packages if they signed nondisclosure agreements. What critics called “hush money” may have cost the state millions of dollars, according to a regulatory complaint a former employee filed this month with the state Office of Legislative Audits. It names more than 20 university employees who allegedly were fired or compelled to resign.
“It was the UMUC ‘poof,’ ” said Scott Perry, a former administrator in UMUC’s exams and testing department. “Some people would just disappear.”
Aldridge declined to address specific complaints. Miyares, the acting president, said the confidentiality agreements are “fairly standard in higher education.” He said no one was paid for silence.
“I don’t think there was a climate in which dissent was punished,” he said.
William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, termed the Aldridge tenure a success and the school a vital resource to Marylanders.
“I think it’s doing very well,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think it has a unique niche, both within the [state university] system and, quite frankly, within public higher education.”
Aldridge came to UMUC from Troy University in Alabama, where she was vice chancellor. Both institutions occupy an unusual place within public higher education, offering global online courses to an audience of mostly working adults.
At Troy, Aldridge paid recruiters to find students overseas, a practice that federal regulations prohibit with domestic students.
Aldridge hired the same headhunter at UMUC. The contract has since ended.
“I’ve never approved of this,” Kirwan said of the overseas recruiting technique, “and I’m pleased UMUC is no longer engaged in this.”
Aldridge hired an aggressive marketing company, the now-defunct Innovation Ads, to recruit students online.
Inquiries triggered a prompt return call from a telemarketer, whose job was to glean enough information to complete an application, according to a former administrator in the enrollment management office.
The former worker said the student would then be charged an application fee of up to $50; those who refused to pay would be sent to collections.
“We were getting complaints by the hundreds, every single week, people calling up and saying, ‘I just got a bill for $50, and I did not apply,’ ” the former administrator said.
Miyares acknowledged that the school’s past recruiting practices “were very aggressive,” but he said they have since been scaled back: “I can assure you, since 2009, none of that has happened.”
Under Aldridge, enrollment soared from 84,188 in the 2005-06 academic year to 92,211 in 2010-11. Enrollment in low-cost online courses rose by half. Full-time undergraduate tuition is $5,856 a year for Maryland residents and about twice that for non-residents.
In a 2010 memo sent to Aldridge and Kirwan from the Asian division, faculty members complained that the university had canceled math, language and writing labs and had stopped paying faculty for travel expenses, for student tutorial sessions and for the purchase of white-board markers.
“The academics were good, but she was cutting that out. It was, ‘How can we get these students through faster and faster?’ ” said one former Asia instructor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a confidentiality agreement.
But Miyares said “the large majority” of those complaints had since been addressed, including a leadership change in the Asia division.
The college’s four-year graduation rate held steady at about 30 percent during the Aldridge era, according to state budget documents, and the volume of degrees awarded has risen. Academic pedigree is harder to measure because UMUC is not ranked by U.S. News & World Report.
University leaders defend the decision to shorten courses and cut final exams, saying they reflect the best practices in higher education.
Instead of finals, UMUC students are encouraged to submit an academic project or portfolio, something “much more representative of what they would be asked to prepare in the workplace,” said Marie Cini, dean of the UMUC undergraduate school. Traditional finals, by contrast, stressed “memorization and recall of facts,” she said.
Shorter courses, Cini said, reflect a move toward “deeper learning”: lessons that cover material in more depth and in less time, a format preferable to many adult students.