Friday, July 17, 2015

For UA: The show that must go on (line)

A new report in the Chronicle of  Higher Education fills in a few more blanks in the University of Akron's plans to wipe out a  $40 million budget deficit.  It is a shift in educational culture that would grant much more emphasis to digital-age  technology, as in the decision to expand the school's academic  brand to "polytechnical".

More importantly, however, is UA President  Scott Scarborough's commitment to channel  more of the academic package  to on-line courses at the expense of the campus classroom.  Indeed, his own background is wedded to it with a close relationship with a wealthy for-profit Texas online  operator whose company provides the workings of such an arrangement.

It's Scarborough's  second attempt to reconfigure the in-the-flesh learning route offered by the school for eyes glued to the computer screen.  He proposed the same idea in his previous role at the University of Toledo but was rebuffed by a hostile faculty.

 It should be remembered that abolished jobs, yet to be specified, are merely another layer of dismissals that have been painfully underway for a couple of years.

His preamble to the changes were the new name followed by his announcement that 215 more jobs and the school's baseball team would be unloaded to erase two-thirds of a $60
million debt.  (Even that figure has been disputed by a respected former vice president who looked deeply into the books and estimated that the debt could be at least $70 million).

Scarborough,  a native Texan, is no stranger to the influential Texas businessman, Randy Best.  His company, Academic Partnerships,  has been exploding with profits through his  various private and political contacts.   The Chronicle reported:

"Mr. Best  has a track record  of building businesses that aim to disrupt traditional educational models.  A fund raiser for President George W.Bush, he collected some $380 million by  selling a company that produced reading-education programs designed to fit the requirements of Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind program.   For a subsequent venture - the American College of Education, which aimed to provide master's degrees to teachers - Mr. Best purchased the 'academic assets'  of Barat College, acquiring its accreditation in the process.  The seller was DePaul University, where Mr.  Scarborough   was then serving as chief financial officer.)"

Clearly the Scarborough team is counting not only on cost-saving with each online course, but also growth in enrollment, in which the noses are counted in Columbus for state revenue. It's impossible to overstate the dependency on the  legislature and  more engaging support from Gov. Kasich  for collegiate sustenance.  Besides,  Kasich will be preoccupied with his presidential run to be more than superficially concerned with higher education .

Still, the UA team was optimistic.  The Chronicle noted that Vice Provost  Todd Rickel  flatly predicted that the student population would grow from the current 25,000 to 30,000 in five years.

For now the changes would be a dream come true for Kasich, who declared in 2011 his support of "charter universities" - public universities in private hands (read: for profit) that would exempt them from Big Brother regulations.

Of course, there are critics, too. The Chronicle cited  UA sociology professor John Zipp, president of the AAUP  UA chapter, as  being among the dissenters.  He maintained that the budget crisis is a "problem of the University's own making" with an overbuilt campus as a result of "tremendous optimistic projections" of future growth.

Experience tells me that even when big institutions are worried or pessimistic, they somehow find a way to be optimistic.  That's exectly what's happening at the downtown campus.  And by keeping everyone guessing about the specifics, the school's leaders and trustees have only managed to lower the morale among students and faculty who are still there.

 Hardly a positive way to rebrand.  Have a nice day. .


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