Faculty Forum: Purdue University Global and Public Educational Values

By David P. Nalbone

In April 2017, the institution where I teach, Purdue University, purchased Kaplan University, an online for-profit university. The stated goals of the acquisition, then referred to as “New U” and now known as Purdue University Global, were to improve access to the online teaching space at Purdue and to expand educational access to students who would otherwise not be able to attend a university. From the get-go, however, there were signs of trouble, including a lack of transparency about the acquisition and lack of opportunity for faculty input (even the senate was kept in the dark), concern over the damage to the Purdue brand, and questions about the real reasons for the acquisition, which Purdue’s president had described in an off-the-cuff remark as an opportunity to “make some real money now.”

We in the Indiana AAUP conference saw the acquisition as yet another attempt to privatize and monetize higher education, and we launched an effort to bring daylight to the predatory practices of Kaplan. We gathered several thousand signatures on a petition opposing the acquisition, which we planned to present to the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), Purdue’s regional accrediting body. But we were barred from the “public meeting” of the HLC—an indication of the general weakening of higher educational oversight. The acquisition was approved by the HLC in due course, with some reservations.

Recently, we became aware that some of Kaplan’s more exploitative practices had carried over to Purdue University Global. Most outrageous was a requirement that all faculty sign a nondisclosure agreement, or NDA. When we began a campaign in August 2018 to insist on removing the NDA—on the grounds that it infringed faculty academic freedom— we were met with strenuous protests from Purdue University Global’s chancellor, who described it as a “normal practice” at Kaplan and implied that other institutions with a heavy emphasis on online education required similar agreements. The falsity of that claim quickly came to light, as two other big players in the online space—Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University—disavowed the practice. After another AAUP petition and thousands of new signatures added to the public pressure, Purdue University Global dropped the NDA requirement. It was a clear victory for AAUP principles.

Faculty members remain concerned about the operation of Purdue University Global, however. It was created as a “public-benefit corporation,” but we worry that administrators will pay more heed to the “corporation” than the “public benefit”—after all, the declared intent to “make some real money now” is at odds with the mission of a public higher education institution. Purdue University Global was specifically excluded, through legislative action passed on the same day as its creation, from open-records laws. Purdue’s president, former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, claims the action and its timing were coincidental. But it is hard to believe that he did not act in coordination with lawmakers—or that it was mere coincidence that the legislation dropped on the last day of the legislative session and during the final weeks of the spring semester, a good time for administrators to catch faculty members off guard.

Another concern is that students at Purdue University Global are mandated to sign binding arbitration clauses that indemnify the institution against legal action if it should act in as bad faith, as, say, Trump University did. Our stance on this issue is clear: if you do not act in bad faith, you need not be concerned. Such mandates do not belong in a public institution.

At the time of its acquisition, Kaplan University was a private, for-profit, primarily online, predatory institution. Its name has changed and it has become public, but it maintains its past predatory practices. The Indiana AAUP seeks to help it become (or shame it into becoming) an institution that actually does benefit the public. Greater access to higher education is a noble goal—but should not be achieved at the expense of faculty or student rights or of academic quality. Faculty in Indiana are hopeful that as Purdue University Global sheds its predatory past, it will adhere to AAUP principles and better serve its students and the larger community.

David P. Nalbone is professor of psychology at Purdue University Northwest and president of the Indiana AAUP conference.

Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to academe@aaup.org for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP. 

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