Rutgers faculty say no to Pearson eCollege

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Rutgers University faculty were dismayed when they learned last year 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. Consultation with faculty, who are represented by the Rutgers chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-AFT), was not part of the process.

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.

"So many failings of this administration crystallize in this contract," says David Hughes, a professor of anthropology who serves on the AAUP-AFT executive committee.

Rutgers' 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.

Faculty learned about the contract in August 2012, when a copy was leaked to the union. In January 2013, Rutgers and Pearson made a formal announcement, with managed courses offered for the spring of 2013. While the university says faculty were involved in the process of selecting a company to manage courses, faculty dismiss the claim.

"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."

Hughes says that, to this day, faculty don't know who among them the university consulted. "This represents an abject failure of governance," he says. "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.

Hughes notes that a faculty online course letter agreement drafted by Rutgers says faculty may own the copyright to their materials, but they must grant to Rutgers a "perpetual, royalty-free, paid-up, non-exclusive license to use Course and all Course materials for its educational purposes." The agreement continues, "Due to the particular requirements of an online program, this license specifically includes the right to have the Course taught by others." When faculty working to prepare one graduate course for online delivery saw that paragraph, they backed out.

Also, the Pearson agreement prohibits "obscene, threatening, indecent, libelous, slanderous, defamatory or otherwise unlawful or tortious material, including material that is harmful to children," but does not define those terms. "We don't believe that a proper vetting by representative faculty would have permitted such a clause," says Hughes.

The graduate faculty vote is "in effect, a boycott until 2019," says Kumar.

Rutgers joins a number of high-profile faculty bodies that have voted to reject or put the brakes on their universities' expansion into the massive online education delivery movement. In April, the faculty at Amherst College voted to reject a contract with edX, an online education company founded last year by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The same month, an undergraduate faculty body at Duke University voted not to join a consortium of top colleges offering for-credit online courses through the company 2U.

Faculty in the philosophy department at San Jose State University not only refused to teach an edX course, Justice, developed by a Harvard University professor, they also signed on to a letter asking the course's creator to rethink offering the massive open online course (MOOC). They worried that MOOCs could "replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities."

[Barbara McKenna]

October 31, 2013