The University of Maryland University College was academically sound on the day President Susan Aldridge resigned, according to the chancellor of the state university system.

That assurance, conveyed by Chancellor William E. Kirwan in an interview last week, is the closest Maryland higher education officials have come to answering questions about the sudden departure last month by the leader of the nation’s largest online-focused public university.

Aldridge’s decision to step down has drawn notice across the national higher education community because neither she nor the University System of Maryland has offered an explanation. In her only public comment, Aldridge said in a statement March 21 that “this is a good time to step down.” She had been on leave for a month. University officials have declined to say whether the leave was voluntary.

Her exit set off a chorus of dissent among current and former employees who alleged that Aldridge prioritized enrollment and revenue above academics and that she and her administrators oversaw a toxic work environment.

Kirwan has repeatedly declined to elaborate on her resignation or to answer criticisms of her management skills, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters. But in a telephone interview Friday, he signaled that academics were not a factor.

“At the time Susan resigned, there was no question or dissatisfaction or concern about the quality of the programs being offered at University College,” Kirwan said.

Kirwan also said he had asked the university’s accreditors to conduct a special review because of recent allegations against Aldridge and the university. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education normally conducts a full review every 10 years, with a more limited review midway through that span. The regional accreditor commended University College on its latest review, a “self-study” produced by the university last year.

“We are inviting Middle States to come back and reaffirm the findings that they gave us a relatively short time ago,” Kirwan said.

Separately, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of his chamber’s education committee, has asked Kirwan to provide records on enrollment and workplace practices.

Three main criticisms

University College began after World War II as a means of continuing education for military personnel overseas. It was among the first institutions to offer higher education to older adults and the largest provider of education to military personnel in Europe and Asia.

Worldwide enrollment peaked near 100,000 in the 1991-92 academic year; then, with the end of the Cold War, it declined, slipping below 70,000 at the end of the 1990s.

The school embraced a new business model about 2000, delivering courses online to a stateside audience. U.S. enrollment had doubled to 41,000 by 2006, when Aldridge arrived as president.

Current and former employees have raised three main criticisms: that Aldridge was overly aggressive in recruiting students, that she weakened the school’s academic currency and that she forced out those who spoke up.

Aldridge was motivated by a “great pressure to increase enrollment,” said Joseph Arden, longtime director of the university’s Asian division, who left in 2007. She told administrators that the pressure came from the state university system, Arden said.

Kirwan has said there was no undue pressure on UMUC to raise enrollment or revenue.

Early in her tenure, Aldridge paid recruiters to find students overseas, a practice that federal regulations prohibit with domestic students. Kirwan says he “never approved” of the practice. Aldridge also hired a marketing company that submitted student applications without their consent, triggering hundreds of complaints.

Those practices ended by 2009, according to Javier Miyares, the acting president. “We took corrective steps,” he said, including a “mystery shopper” program that monitors for potential abuses. Last year, the university spent $29 million, or 8 percent of its budget, on marketing and advertising.

Miyares said the university will introduce an academic “grace period” this fall, allowing students four days to drop a class at no financial penalty, as a gesture of good faith. Some students have complained about the school’s refund policy, which entitles students to no more than 75 percent of their money back after a course begins.

Current and former faculty members also allege that Aldridge weakened academics by installing administrators who lacked doctorates, by replacing full-time with part-time faculty and, most recently, by shortening many 14-week courses to eight weeks and eliminating proctored final exams.

To some extent, the trend toward part-time “adjunct” faculty and business-minded administrators predated Aldridge and reflects the university’s shift to the online market, a sector of higher education with a comparatively corporate culture.

“It is more corporate, and I make no apologies for that,” Miyares said. “Is this an environment that’s fast-paced? You bet. Is this an environment where if you don’t run at a certain speed, you’re likely to be left behind? Absolutely.”

Miyares acknowledged that the share of part-time faculty has risen, particularly overseas, largely for cost concerns.

Reputation for turnover

Many faculty opposed the decision to shorten courses and to replace final exams with end-of-course projects. Kirwan and Miyares contended that the changes were driven by sound academic theory. They noted that University College has offered many eight-week courses in the past. The new curriculum, they said, has driven a five-point increase in the rate of successful course completion.

In an internal evaluation, more than four-fifths of faculty members described the new curriculum as “good” or “excellent.”

But a faculty-driven February survey of 65 Asian instructors, who have been among the most vocal about the changes, found less support. And four-fifths of those surveyed disapproved of the elimination of final exams.

In the same survey, four-fifths of faculty members said that if they voiced strong opposition to an administrative policy, their “continued employment would be in jeopardy.”

Early in her tenure, Aldridge acquired a reputation for turnover.

“She changed a lot of people, and I know that was controversial,” said Gerald Heeger, her predecessor as president.

Several former employees, in interviews, described being offered a choice to resign or be fired. Some reported being asked to sign confidentiality agreements.

One such agreement, provided by a former employee, required that she “not discuss or make her opinions known about UMUC, its employees, officers, management or operations or her opinion about any of them with individuals serving in public office or employed by state or local government entities whatsoever.”

The employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she had signed the agreement, said she took it as a bar against speaking to government watchdogs.

University officials said that the Maryland attorney general’s office vetted the agreements and that, in any case, state whistleblower laws protect former employees from retaliation.

The number of such resignations and firings “is not the volume that has been portrayed,” Miyares said. Although he had no tally, he said they amounted to fewer than 100 among thousands of employees.

Miyares provided data showing an average tenure of 8.6 years among the 254 University College employees worldwide at a rank of director or higher.

“Have we made mistakes in the past? Yes,” he said. “But this is, fundamentally, a solid place.”