Faculty Members Are Wary of Distance-Education Ventures

Faculty Members Are Wary of Distance-Education Ventures

 

Talk of 'brand name' offends Cornell professors and illustrates tensions over for-profit units

 

By SARAH CARR

 

                                                                                       

When administrators at Cornell University decided this winter to create a for-profit subsidiary to develop and market online

courses, they chose the temporary name e-Cornell -- an allusion, they said, to one of the university's founders, Ezra Cornell,

who used to sign his letters "Affectionately Yours, E. Cornell."

 

While some faculty members and administrators say the name helps link the new venture's mission to the history of the

institution, others find it symbolic of everything they dislike about the endeavor.

 

"It just sounds flashy and transient, somehow," says Frederick Ahl, a classics professor who has doubts about the whole effort.

"I don't want to see Cornell bugger up a nice place for undergraduates to get an education by having a wild fling in the stock

market."

 

Mr. Ahl and more than a few other professors at the university have voiced philosophical objections to the university's starting a for-profit venture, as well as concerns over what they see as a lack of faculty input in the decision-making process. But those

supporting e-Cornell say that creating such a company is the best way for the university to raise the funds it needs to enter the

online-learning market aggressively while retaining more control over the education offered than it would have in a contract with an outside company.

 

The discussions at Cornell have raised the broad question of how to incorporate traditional faculty procedures and the ideals of

academic culture into the fast-paced world of dot-com companies, particularly when those online ventures bear universities'

names and sell their education. Educators say the debate at Cornell may be a forerunner of those likely to arise on other

campuses as more institutions consider for-profit corporations as a means of starting or expanding online offerings.

 

But the issues that have agitated Cornell have yet to pervade academe. Other institutions -- including Columbia University,

New York University, Temple University, and the University of Maryland's University College -- have established for-profit

operations to sell online courses. And while such moves have rattled at least a few faculty members at each of those institutions, they appear to have generated the most controversy at Cornell and Temple.

 

Here at Cornell, faculty members and administrators have expressed a wide range of opinions about e-Cornell. Disagreements

often extend to the very language used to frame the debate, as evinced by the differences over the name: Some administrators

and faculty members talk about how creating the corporation will help the university venture into new territory without

jeopardizing the Cornell "brand name." But to other faculty members, the very term is anathema.

 

"If we are starting to talk about Cornell as a brand name, then we are in trouble," says Risa L. Lieberwitz, an associate

professor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations who teaches labor law. "I don't see what I do as a professor as

promoting a brand name. We are talking about brands without the slightest bit of self-consciousness, and that is just jarring to

me."

 

The trustees voted in March to establish the company, following at least three years of discussion about distance learning. In the spring of 1997, the university created a committee of administrators and faculty members to study the issue, says David Lipsky, a professor of industrial and labor relations who was its chairman.

 

In May 1998, the committee recommended that Cornell establish a nonprofit corporation, legally apart from the university, to

spearhead efforts in distance learning. But over the next year, several administrators and trustees kept revisiting that

recommendation, and in July 1999 they, and Mr. Lipsky, asked the board to create a for-profit corporation instead.

 

Shortly before the trustees approved the new recommendation, in March, the Cornell Faculty Senate took up the issue. By a

vote of 65 to 1, it asked the president and trustees not to act until the senate had had a chance to discuss the matter further.

 

When, a few days later, the trustees approved the proposal to create e-Cornell, many faculty members were upset.

 

"The political handling of e-Cornell has to be a classic of sorts," says J. Robert Cooke, dean of the university faculty. "Even

though there had been a lot of discussion of distance learning, there had not been any discussion of a for-profit venture, and

initially the administration was not inviting public discussion."

 

The atmosphere has calmed down since then, administrators and faculty members agree. Cornell's president, Hunter R.

Rawlings, agreed in April to create a faculty committee to help plan the university's policies on distance learning. Its members

say they are pleased with the progress they have made so far.

 

Mary Sansalone, the deputy provost, who is leading the effort to create e-Cornell, says the corporation as currently envisioned

would focus solely on the creation and distribution of continuing-education courses for executives.

 

Many of Cornell's schools pushed for the for-profit route, Ms. Sansalone says. "The keen interest in executive education came

from several schools that have executive-education programs."

 

One of the proponents is Deborah H. Streeter, who has taught a distance-education course in entrepreneurship and hopes to

be active in e-Cornell when it is up and running. "I think the administration did explore with a lot of different programs --

including mine -- whether there was an interest in doing this," she says. "Cornell has to decide whether it is going to play in this

arena or let faculty leak out to other marketing opportunities."

 

Mr. Lipsky, the professor who led the original distance-learning committee, says he and other university officials worried that if

they did not act -- and act quickly -- they might lose the interest of professors like Ms. Streeter, who are interested in pursuing

distance-learning opportunities.

 

"We have to be a player in our own back yard, or risk losing those resources to other people," he argues. "In the Internet world there is a lot of talk about the value of brands, and universities need to face up to the value of the brands under their control."

 

"We don't want to put faculty in a straitjacket in any way, shape, or form," he said, "but we want to offer them an alternative

way of marketing their services."

 

Gordon Macomber, chief executive officer of NYUonline, New York University's for-profit subsidiary, says N.Y.U., too,

opted to create its own company rather than deal with outsiders. One reason, he says, is that the university is more comfortable controlling the venture itself.

 

Instructors at NYUonline, which is farther along in developing course offerings than other university for-profit ventures are,

offered an initial set of trial courses in business this spring, says Mr. Macomber, who hopes that by the end of the year the

company will have close to 30 business courses developed.

 

NYUonline, which grew out of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, is backed by an investment of $21.5-million

from the university. The subsidiary is wholly owned by the university, on which it relies for faculty members to provide subject

expertise and a well-known academic brand name to attract students.

 

But if some faculty members on various campuses are pushing to speed up online offerings, others have asked administrators to put on the brakes.

 

Here at Cornell, faculty members have two general concerns about e-Cornell, says Barry K. Carpenter, a professor of

chemistry and chemical biology and a member of the faculty committee studying distance learning. "On the one hand, it seemed

to be a radical departure from the kinds of things the university had been involved with in the past. And on the other hand, it

seemed to come out of thin air."

 

Many professors say the administration has, to some extent, dealt with the first issue by creating the faculty committee. But they still have concerns about the for-profit aspect. "It does represent a considerable threat to our culture," says Mr. Cooke, the dean.

 

"The principal concern is one of control," says Mr. Carpenter. "It seems to me to be hopelessly naive to believe that one can

write an agreement that can protect the university from the control of investors, because no matter what the agreement says, in

the end they have the control because they have the money."

 

Ms. Sansalone says it is unlikely that e-Cornell would rely on financing from outside investors at the start, although it will not

necessarily close the door to them later on.

 

However, other faculty members at Cornell see dangers other than outside investment.

 

Mr. Ahl, the classics professor, worries that the financial rewards available through teaching at e-Cornell would exacerbate the

existing stratification among scholars, giving some of them new opportunities to seek grants and funds -- but from a company

owned by the university rather than from an outside business. "It might create a kind of class system inside the university," he

says. "Now, at least, it is Monsanto Corporation paying a professor the money that puts him in a Mercedes. But it could be

Cornell."

 

Professors and administrators agree, however, that what some faculty members are most uncomfortable with is the speed at

which the e-Cornell project is moving -- that, and whether traditional faculty-governance procedures can be adapted to

accommodate such a rapid schedule for getting the project up and running.

 

"The way that faculty governance tends to work is slowly," says Mr. Carpenter. "And if we are dealing with important

universitywide issues, where we need to respond to some sort of rapidly changing marketplace, it is not completely clear how

faculty-governance bodies fit in the picture."

 

One of the most vivid examples of the clash can be found in faculty resistance to a rallying call adopted by some of the leaders

of the e-Cornell effort. When explaining the need to move fast on the issue of distance learning, those leaders have said that "the train has already left the station." Some professors respond with frustration.

 

"The nightmarish expression is that 'The train has already left the station,'" says Mr. Cooke. "It seems to mean, 'We don't know

what we are doing, but we want to do something,' and it is really anathema to the faculty to plan to go ahead and do something

without really understanding it."

 

"'The train has left the station' -- I'm so sick of that expression," says Ms. Lieberwitz, the labor-law professor. "I'm part of the

train, too."

 

Arthur Hochner, who heads Temple's faculty union and is an associate professor of human-resource management, doesn't buy

the argument that the faculty moves too slowly on issues to be part of rapid decision-making processes. "The faculty has

sometimes done things quickly," he says. "Having to operate at the pace of a corporation would be something new, to be sure,

though."

 

In October, Temple's Board of Trustees voted to create a subsidiary informally dubbed "Virtual Temple." While administrators

said they would create a faculty advisory committee for the venture, Mr. Hochner wonders if that is enough.

 

"The trustees and administrators think they can come up with ideas like this themselves, announce them, and then approve

them, instead of having the faculty participate in the formation of those ideas," he says. "If the faculty participate in the original

design, then the implementation will go much more smoothly."

 

Administrators at Temple have said that faculty members were consulted throughout the decision process. And Tracy Cooper,

a professor of art history who heads the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtable at Temple, says that planners of

Virtual Temple seem committed to gathering faculty input.

 

Mr. Rawlings, Cornell's president, says one of the major challenges in establishing an online presence has been the need to

accommodate the different faculty contingents. "There are some who are very eager to move ahead quite rapidly, while there

are others who are quite wary," he says.

 

His response has been to create parallel processes, asking Ms. Sansalone, the deputy provost, to continue devising a business

plan for e-Cornell, and at the same time inviting the new committee to discuss the broader issues at a slower pace.

 

The committee will concentrate largely on how, or whether, Cornell should deal with the issue of online undergraduate and

degree programs, he says. Planners of e-Cornell have so far focused solely on nondegree continuing-education programs.

 

William Arms, a professor of computer science who chairs the panel, says its members plan to work more quickly than is

typical for a faculty committee, and will issue recommendations as their work progresses, rather than making one big

announcement at the end. "Our biggest challenge," he says, "is to turn the faculty-committee process into something where we

can make good, widely supported decisions a little bit at a time."

 

The Cornell committee will meet throughout the summer, and it will issue some recommendations by the fall, says Mr. Arms.

 

Some observers say Cornell is getting an early start on a debate that could soon reach the academic mainstream, but that is no

consolation to the online venture's critics. "It is very difficult to wrestle with e-Cornell," says Mr. Ahl. "It is hard to come to

terms with something whose nature you don't know, whose name you don't like, and whose emergence seems to have taken

place without the consultation of those who you would have expected to be consulted."

 

So far, disagreements about for-profit ventures like those at Cornell and Temple are rarities, says Frank Newman, a former

president of the Education Commission of the States, who teaches public policy at Brown University and at Columbia

University. "The issue has only become contentious at a very few places."

 

At N.Y.U., the new for-profit operation does not seem to have disturbed faculty members to the extent that e-Cornell has riled

professors in Ithaca.

 

Mr. Macomber, C.E.O. of NYUonline, says there may have been less controversy on his campus because fewer people and

universities were talking about for-profit distance learning a couple of years ago, when NYUonline was first discussed. "Now

the noise level is intense, with all of these schools rushing into it."

 

But officials of NYUonline are always aware that they must move more slowly than other corporations have to. "Just because

you have a for-profit status, it doesn't mean you can operate like any other dot-com," he says. "If you get too far out in front of

your own troops, you can get killed by friendly fire."