University of Maryland University College: “The perfect place to keep a big secret”

University of Maryland University College
University of Maryland University College

Imagine a university that has tens of thousands of students, yet few of them even know the name of the president of the institution. A university in which final exams apparently don’t need to be taken in person with a proctor present. A university in which faculty don’t get tenure, never hold full faculty meetings, and seldom know the senior administrators running the school. A university “whose leaders are more interested in making money and building an empire … than in educating students.”

I’m not talking about University of Phoenix or the other bad boys of the for-profit, online education world. This is University of Maryland University College, which, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, has seen high levels of leadership tumult over the past few years and recently saw its top administrator, President Susan C. Aldridge, being placed on indefinite leave. It’s not clear what prompted her removal, and faculty aren’t talking. But the structure of the school and its offerings are hardly typical of state-run colleges, as noted by the Chron:

[University of Maryland] University College has more than 100 worldwide locations, but online education is at the center of its operation. It claims to be the largest public university in the United States, with more than 90,000 students, many of them part time. Among them are students who work full-time jobs and have little emotional connection to the university, much less to its leadership.

Studying for an exam in the library at UMUC’s academic center in Largo on Tuesday, Ejike Michael looked perplexed when asked by a reporter what he made of Ms. Aldridge’s unexplained absence. Mr. Michael has spent a year at the college taking classes toward a master’s degree in information assurance, but he sheepishly conceded he had never even heard of Ms. Aldridge.

“I don’t care. I don’t know. You come here and do what you do,” said Mr. Michael, hunched over a giant tome, Network Security: The Complete Reference.

Mr. Michael says he is fascinated with his classes, which are offered at odd hours that cater to working adults like him.

UMUC, while state-run, shares some features of the flexible, online-heavy, and career-focused for-profit institutions that play such a prominent role in delivering education to adults.

The college exists “in this gray area between the two,” said Richard Garrett, an online-education expert who is managing director of the consultancy Eduventures. UMUC officials felt “more freedom than perhaps the average public institution has to embrace new delivery modes, new audiences,” he says, “but have equally felt that [they’re] still part of a state institution.”

But some of the same qualities that help the institution compete in the adult market may also help explain the almost total silence surrounding Ms. Aldridge.

University College employs a largely adjunct faculty. Of nearly 2,000 instructors, 88 percent are part time, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Multiyear contracts, which a handful of nonprofit colleges offer in lieu of tenure, are rarely offered at the university.

Because they don’t have tenure, faculty at University of Maryland University College are afraid to speak out. But a small group of faculty based in Asia were brave enough to question the school’s policies and direction under Aldridge, reports the Washington Post:

The faculty faulted the Aldridge administration for alleged cuts that struck them as unfair, such as cancelling math, language and writing labs, requiring students in science labs to pay for “a nonexistent laboratory kit,” declining to pay instructors to teach tutorial labs, and refusing to compensate faculty for travel expenses and even for the cost of white-board markers.

“The administration is continually offloading institutional expenses onto faculty and students alike,” one respondent wrote.

The administration unilaterally reduced online classes to eight weeks, shorter than the average college semester, and did so “without discussion with the faculty,” Whealy wrote.

Aldridge “consistently and strenuously opposed” attempts by Asia instructors to form a faculty governance group, an indication, in their minds, that she was reluctant to involve faculty in decision-making.

Welcome to the 21st century college.