Thursday, April 26, 2007

Outsourcing professors 

There is a proposal at the University of Illinois to create an online program that could scale up to 70,000 and avoid many of the costs of bricks and mortar ... and mortarboards.
When Global Campus was proposed, in May 2006, officials envisioned it as a corporation that would rely on part-time instructors, and be free of university regulations.

Administrators said the setup would reduce faculty expenses. Operations like payroll and other tasks could be outsourced, presumably allowing the Global Campus to run more efficiently than the regular university. The online institution would be nimble, responding to market pressures with frequent revisions in the curriculum. By comparison, proposed changes in the traditional university curriculum are vetted by many scholars in a time-consuming process.

Faculty members complained that the project treated them as irrelevant.

"It presented a huge danger, not only in and of itself but as a kind of model for the university of the future," says Cary Nelson, an English professor at Urbana-Champaign who is president of the American Association of University Professors.

Faculty members would have had no say in curriculum development or the hiring of instructors, he explains: "It was the development of a whole segment of the university completely outside faculty input and completely outside shared governance."
The university has relented and created a partnership with the faculty union. Yet there are online courses at some of its campuses, such as Springfield. (
Source, hat tip: loyal reader JW.)

What will become of these online programs and why would the universities of Illinois and Maryland, among others, push for them? We turn again to Richard Vedder, reporting from a conference studying collective bargaining in higher education:
The reality is that spending at American universities is not rising as rapidly as in the salad days of the 1950s or 1960s, but it is still growing. It is true that a smaller proportion of that spending is going to the professoriate. To the attendees of the ... meeting, on average, the solution is to get the taxpayers to fund higher education more generously, rather than to reallocate university funds back to historic proportions with respect to spending on instruction.

To be sure, there were pockets of realism and analytical thinking. Dan Julius, the Provost at Benedictine University, called for more serious academic research on labor issues, suggesting good ideas for studies. For example, has the spread in the use of part-time non-tenured ("contingent") faculty led to reductions in academic or instructional quality? What is the relationship between academic quality and unionization? Good questions, deserving serious scrutiny. And Ernst Benjamin, who runs the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), saw a potential dilemma. In pushing hard for higher salaries and fringe benefits for mostly tenure track full time faculty, unions increase the incentives for institutions to hire more adjunct faculty with low pay and fringe benefits. He came close to suggesting that unions are promoting the demise of their own membership by driving universities to lower cost substitutes for their services.
Which takes us to online learning.