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Faculty say no to secret contracts

Faculty may have mixed feelings about jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, but one thing has become clear in the past year: They’re resisting contracts forged between online companies and college administrations without their consultation. 

In December, as AFT On Campus went to press, the San Jose State University Academic Senate was considering a strongly worded resolution calling for a policy change forbidding the university from signing contracts with outside technology providers without the approval of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the affected departments. 

The San Jose faculty has been thoughtfully responding to SJSU’s president’s forays into the online learning world. In April, faculty in the SJSU philosophy department wrote to a Harvard professor explaining why they wouldn’t go along with the university’s use of his edX platform course. “Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU [California State University] are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education,” they said. 

Faculty bodies at Duke University, Amherst College, the State University of New York and Rutgers University have also spoken out. 

In June, SUNY announced a partnership with Coursera to offer MOOCs. “UUP is concerned about the quality of credit-bearing MOOCs and the impact that offering them would have on teaching and learning within the SUNY system,” said United University Professions President and AFT Vice President Fred Kowal at the time. “Also, we are alarmed by SUNY’s goal to use MOOCs to add 100,000 students without increasing faculty.”

In August 2012, Rutgers University faculty were appalled when they saw a leaked contract showing that the university had entered into a secret seven-year agreement with Pearson Inc. to provide online degree programs to Rutgers students and split the revenues. Faculty, who are represented by the Rutgers chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-AFT), were not consulted.

The agreement with Pearson eCollege, a Colorado-based distance-learning company, gives the company rights to manage and market the courses developed by Rutgers and take 50 percent of the revenue in the first year. By the end of the contract, Rutgers will keep 65 percent of the revenue and hopes to have added tens of thousands of cyberstudents from across the world.

“The contract was signed without input from the people who teach the courses,” says Deepa Kumar, associate professor of media studies and Middle Eastern studies. “The university says it spoke to a couple of faculty, but what we have in mind is having an opportunity for everyone to discuss.”

“This represents an abject failure of governance,” says David Hughes, a professor of anthropology who serves on the AAUP-AFT executive committee. “It is the university abrogating its responsibility to consult with faculty and entering into a sweet deal with an outside company.” Beyond subverting the governance process and the union contract, the agreement raises red flags on the fronts of academic freedom and intellectual property rights, the union says.

On Oct. 9, the faculty of the Rutgers Graduate School passed a resolution rejecting current and future proposals for graduate degree programs managed under the agreement. The resolution also asserts the faculty union’s contractual right to bargain terms and conditions of employment under such agreements. 

—Barbara McKenna