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‘UMUC is not like everybody else’: Tensions flare over school’s direction

It has been five years since the University of Maryland University College considered shedding its status as a public institution and embracing life as a private school to become more competitive in the online education market.

University leadership worried that state rules would hinder partnerships with software firms or other private-sector companies that seemed necessary for the school to gain an edge as it faced stiff competition from the likes of Arizona State University. The proposal was met with skepticism from faculty who said it would undermine the college’s reputation.

The school relented after winning exemptions from the state from policies concerning procurement. But some of the tensions between administrators and faculty that flared five years ago remain.

Those tensions over the direction of the school speak to a broader conflict in higher education, where faculty and administrators are caught between traditional notions of learning and evolving online education. As colleges and universities embrace older, working students by offering more streamlined and flexible courses, some educators worry academics will be compromised. School leaders say without innovation, the sustainability of their institutions will be at risk.

In some ways, the University of Maryland University College, commonly known as UMUC, is a prime example of this conflict. In other ways, the school stands apart. UMUC, one of 12 schools in the University System of Maryland, has been offering online courses since the late 1990s and cemented its place as a distance-education powerhouse long before many of its contemporaries. Still, faculty who have been with the school for decades say it has lost its way.

Current and former employees lament that the school’s administration prioritizes revenue and enrollment over academics — to the detriment of students and the mission of the college. The chorus of dissent has grown louder as UMUC has shortened courses and expanded its online presence.

UMUC President Javier Miyares said the school is being responsive to the needs of its population — adults with limited time and an immediate need to complete credentials to advance their careers. The mission of the school, he said, has not changed since it was founded in 1947 so that military personnel could continue their education overseas.

While Miyares sees a school adapting to student demands, some faculty see a state institution transforming into a for-profit college. They cite pressure to increase enrollment, reliance on part-time adjunct instructors and a diminishing interest in providing quality education.

Critics say that reducing many 14-week courses to eight weeks is a disservice to students, and that relying on a handful of administrators to develop curriculum with minimal input from instructors undermines their education.

“Programs are designed with outdated, poorly conceived materials because faculty is not involved,” said Barbara Gayle, who retired last year from teaching business and communications courses at the school. “Students don’t get the breadth and depth of the experience of their professors.”

Miyares said a small cadre of full-time faculty, deans, program chairs and the provost design the curriculum but invite adjuncts to contribute. He said it would be “naive” to think the college could turn over the curriculum to the many adjunct instructors it employs.

“What we will not have is a classroom in which an adjunct or any faculty will go in and teach what he or she thinks, using the textbooks he or she wants,” Miyares said. “That is not who we are. It is an ideological decision, and this is the decision UMUC has made.”

Nearly 95 percent of the 4,500 faculty at UMUC are adjuncts, a much higher share than in any other school in the University System of Maryland. Miyares said at least half the school’s adjunct instructors have full-time jobs in their field and are not reliant on the courses they teach to earn a living.

UMUC cites the use of adjuncts, who earn $3,000 to $5,000 per class, for helping the school maintain one of the lowest tuitions among Maryland’s public universities. The school charges about $9,000 a year for most in-state students and a little over $6,000 for in-state veterans pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

Albert Nekimken, an adjunct associate professor at UMUC, argues that filling the ranks with low-paid, part-time adjuncts who have no health insurance, sick leave or retirement benefits undermines the teaching profession. Adjuncts, he argues, have no real voice at the college, despite the administration’s claims to the contrary.

“It is a hierarchal place where the president makes all of the decisions and he is only accountable to the chancellor, and as long as the revenue is good, he can do whatever he wants,” said Nekimken, a member of the steering committee of the UMUC Adjunct Professionals United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union’s Local 500, which is not recognized by the school.

He said what Miyares calls an ideological decision “seems increasingly like a simple managerial drive to expand revenues and profits that usually benefits primarily managers.”

Nekimken has tried for years to organize an adjunct union, but the barriers are formidable.

Collective bargaining rights for public colleges and universities in Maryland must be granted by the state. Lawmakers have tried to extend those rights to adjunct faculty at UMUC in recent legislative sessions, but their bills have died in committee.

Mitchell Tropin, a journalism professor at UMUC, also teaches at Montgomery College, where adjunct faculty have a union. Instructors there, he said, are part of the fabric of the community college and far more engaged in governance than at UMUC.

“If UMUC is part of the University System of Maryland, then it should have the same elements as the other 11 members, which would include creating nontenured full-time positions” with greater participation in governance, he said.

Miyares said the college has started offering more annual contracts to hundreds of adjuncts throughout the United States and will be ushering in pay raises based on performance this fall. Creating more full-time positions, however, does not align with the school’s preference for instructors who are working in their given field, he said.

Tropin, treasurer of the SEIU’s Local 500, said that although a faculty union could improve working conditions, it cannot “bring back the good old days” that his colleagues at UMUC long for, when they had greater control of their courses. The current academic structure, he said, resonates with the population that enrolls at the college.

“Students who sign up at UMUC are looking for a different experience. They are there because it is eight weeks, online. They want to get a degree to get a better job, and for them, that’s all that really matters,” Tropin said. “A lot of professors feel students should have this full, rich experience . . . but I imagine there are a lot of people saying, ‘I just want to get that degree.’ ”

Nekimken and other faculty question whether the college has sacrificed student success in pursuit of high enrollment.

Just 25 percent of undergraduate students at UMUC earn a certificate or degree within eight years, according to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard.

School officials say that figure gives an incomplete picture because the college serves a distinct set of students. Many students take a course or two while serving in the military, with no intention of completing a degree at the college.

UMUC serves more than 90,000 students on military bases around the world, stateside and online. Most instruction is delivered online and in hybrid format — a mix of online and classroom work — and most face-to-face classes are offered primarily through the school’s contracts to teach active-duty military personnel and their families in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The college is among the top 10 recipients of federal GI Bill benefits.

In April, the advocacy group Veterans Education Success took UMUC to task for spending less than one-third of tuition and fees on academic instruction in 2017. The advocacy group said spending on instruction often correlates with the likelihood of students earning a degree and finding meaningful employment.

College officials argued that the school has a low cost of delivering instruction because it primarily serves students online and has no full-time tenured faculty. That explanation, however, fueled questions among current and former employees about how the college is spending money.

“There are a lot of layers of administration at UMUC, and it feels like a lot of money goes into that budget,” said Alexander Phillips, a former assistant professor who taught at UMUC in Germany.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, faculty salaries and expenses accounted for the largest portion of operating expenses at UMUC, followed by student services — a category that includes marketing, enrollment management and advising. The school’s operating budget that year was about $411 million, 10 percent of which was derived from state appropriations. By comparison, most other colleges in the state university system receive about 30 percent of their funding from the legislature.

UMUC is heavily reliant on tuition revenue, making it particularly sensitive to enrollment trends. Five years ago, federal cuts and a military drawdown led to double-digit declines in enrollment, subsequent budget reductions and layoffs.

As the school’s financial condition stabilized, the administration explored new revenue streams. The college spun out its analytics office that examined education data in 2015 into a private company called HelioCampus that analyzes student performance and academic program data for other universities. A year later, the school created a nonprofit holding company, dubbed UMUC Ventures, that took ownership of HelioCampus with the intent of using profits to fund an endowment and scholarships.

Some faculty perceive these moves as evidence of the corporatization of a public institution and a misguided focus on business strategies instead of academics.

Gayle, the former UMUC instructor, said she wished the school would put as much effort into education as it does into its business model.

“The students are deserving. They are wonderful and hard-working, and education will make a difference in their lives once they get out of the military. They are people who need the kind of support system that UMUC is not giving them,” Gayle said.

Tropin, her former colleague, wonders whether there is a fundamental divide among faculty and administration over the mission of the college.

“Maybe there has to be greater recognition that UMUC is not like everybody else, and once that’s clear, the adjunct faculty would have to make a decision, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ ” he said. “The university should be more open to suggestions for changes . . . but right now, it doesn’t seem like either side is talking about compromise.”

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