WEST LAFAYETTE — A week after regulators came to campus to look over Purdue University’s pending plans to acquire the for-profit online education giant Kaplan University, more than 300 Purdue faculty members have signed a petition opposing the deal.
Strong objections to the lack of faculty involvement and how Purdue’s name and educational brand will be attached to a Kaplan University product — something professors have warned isn’t up to standards on the West Lafayette campus — remain at the heart of faculty protests.
“There are many reasons not to like this deal, but that’s one you’re going to hear time and time again,” said David Sanders, a biology professor and past chairman of University Senate, a faculty-heavy leadership body. “We feel they need to know our concerns.”
Sanders sent the petition, with 319 signatures of faculty on Purdue’s campuses, to the Higher Learning Commission this week.
The Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities in 19 states, including Indiana, is the final regulatory stop for the Kaplan deal. The commission had representatives at Purdue last week, ahead of the deadline for comment on Oct. 31.
In a deal announced in April, Purdue trustees agreed to pay $1 to Kaplan Higher Education, the parent company of Kaplan University, to create what has been called NewU. At that time, Kaplan had 32,000 students, 2,462 faculty members and 15 campuses. The terms of the deal call for Kaplan to provide expertise to run NewU in exchange for 12.5 percent of the revenue.
Purdue President Mitch Daniels has touted the deal as a new frontier in the university’s land grant mission to reach the type of students — those who are older, those who are veterans, those trying to juggle full-time work with part-time school, among others — who might never have a chance to come to the West Lafayette campus. He also has pitched it as an innovative way to jumpstart Purdue’s lagging presence online, which he says could be instrumental in spreading Purdue’s current offerings to broader audiences.
The petition follows months of questions and doubts from skeptical faculty about the deal they claim has bypassed their ideas and advice.
In May, University Senate passed a resolution calling on the trustees to rethink NewU until faculty could be more involved. That stemmed from complaints that the deal was put together over five months behind closed doors — a move trustees justified as necessary for negotiations covering trade secrets.
In October, the University Senate created a committee of faculty members to keep tabs on the Kaplan deal and to offer faculty voices to the administration as a NewU structure is hammered out.
The new petition, sent Tuesday to the Higher Learning Commission, served as a recap of many of the faculty concerns, including those about academic freedom or faculty oversight of curriculum at Kaplan; the fact that Kaplan faculty aren’t required to “have the credentials that would be expected for faculty members at an of the Purdue University campuses;” and that “standards at Kaplan University are not consistent with the emphasis on academic integrity and academic rigor that Purdue University maintains.”
Those were in addition to concern about the use of the Purdue name on NewU — as the U.S. Department of Education demanded in its conditional approval issued in September.
“That seemed to be a point of friction for a lot of faculty members to have the Purdue brand associated with the new entity,” Alberto Rodriguez, University Senate chairman, said during a faculty Q&A in October with Purdue attorney Steve Schultz.
“While I think the deal you all devised sounds as if it will be favorable to Purdue, compared to Kaplan, one of the questions has been, ‘What is Kaplan getting out of this?’” Laurel Weldon, a political science professor and a member of University Senate, said at the time. “It’s pretty clear that what they’re getting out of it is our brand. And our brand is worth billions of dollars. … If it damages our brand, it’s not worth it, in my view.”
Frank Dooley, senior vice provost for teaching and learning, has been the administration’s point person for academic questions about NewU.
“The (Higher Learning Commission) visit last week was a fact-finding trip, and the faculty committee appropriately used the process to state their concerns via the petition,” Dooley said. “With respect to the petition, I reserve comment in deference to (Higher Learning Commission) process.”
Dooley said he expected the Higher Learning Commission to issue its findings in the coming weeks, giving time for Purdue to respond. During the process, university officials have said final approval could take as long as February.
Will faculty concerns be enough to stop a deal already approved by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and the U.S. Department of Education?
“We believe there’s that chance,” Sanders said. “The points we raise here are real.”