Western Governors University (WGU) Is in Your State: Deconstructing the Academy
Teri Yamada, Professor of Asian Studies, CSU Long Beach
In our cultural echo chamber of deception, as Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” The media has served business well in the production of panic over America’s imminent fall in the global economy. We are told that our decline in global competitiveness is due to the failure of “traditional public education.”
For the past several years, the Lumina Foundation for Education has been calling for the United States to increase higher education attainment rates — the proportion of the population that holds a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential — to 60 percent by the year 2025. This call — known as “Lumina’s Big Goal” — has been embraced by many others. Foundations, state governments, national higher education associations, and President Obama have all issued their own call for increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials.
Their way to meet this goal is to alter the “unchanging public education system” through disruptive technology and privatization. In this mythic death and rebirth struggle, we must rid ourselves of the ossified, brick-and-mortar educational institutions and embrace the redemptive and disruptive online learning platforms of virtual education. Stephen Ehrmann refers to this phenomenon as “the rapture of technology” (1).
The big money behind rapture technology ensures the effectiveness of its propaganda. Public discourse on education has been remolded to focus on the cause of its “failure” defined as teachers and their unions. And remedies are offered in the form of privatization through vouchers and charters, online delivery, and school funding tied to the measurable outcomes of retention and graduation rates.
The result is contested cultural space over the meaning and value of education. For example, the Lumina Foundation promotes its definition:
“Quality in higher education must be defined in terms of student outcomes, particularly learning outcomes, and not by inputs or institutional characteristics. The value of degrees and credentials…rests on the skills and knowledge they represent.” (2 )
Compare this reductive utilitarianism to the “affinity philosophy of learning” embedded in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s cutting edge digital media and learning initiative ;
“If it were possible to define generally the mission of education, it could be said that its fundamental purpose is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community (creative) and economic life (3 ).
Both Lumina and MacArthur advocate a shift from an instructor-centered model of education to a student-centered learning model; but MacArthur’s frame does not erase “teachers” from education although it does reshape their role as instructors. The Lumina value of reductive utilitarianism is the basis for the WGU model of learning. The goal of this learning is to demonstrate competency over a specific vocational skill set defined by measurable outcomes.
WGU began in 1995 when several governors of western states decided to create a virtual university to confer “competency-based” degrees. They had the following concerns (4):
- To accommodate access of rural students, the governors wanted delivery of cost-effective education at any place, any time;
- The rising cost of education combined with population growth would surpass the capacity of the brick-and-mortar institutions; there would be no more money to build new campuses;
- State colleges were not producing enough skilled graduates, and the graduates they were producing had uneven skill sets. So a competency-based degree, certified by a third party, seemed to make sense “in an employment climate where it is commonplace to question what it means to have a degree” (5); they had corporate support for this plan;
- The governors felt their state colleges had been unresponsive to these problems so the governors decided to shake things up, “to foster innovation in higher education institutions.”
The governors embraced a competency-based, online delivery model that required re-conceptualizing the function of “traditional” faculty in higher education. This re-conceptualization is called “unbundling”: the splitting off into distinct functions of a faculty role and assigning each function to a distinct human agent or technology.
Unbundling enables virtual universities to control costs by increasing “instructor productivity” (6). Research and university service are removed from the role of “faculty.” Academic advising is not recognized in this world-view as part of a faculty’s role in the university. The remaining component —instruction —is further unbundled to the following five distinct activities:
- Designing the course;
- Developing the course through the selection of instructional methods and course materials;
- Mediating a student’s learning process (such as identifying learning styles);
- Assessing levels of competence.
These five activities are then assigned to technology or separate agents. In this way, the traditional understanding of “faculty” is deconstructed. WGU does not offer instruction directly but brokers “learning opportunities” through various technologies. Advisers (mentors/monitors) assist students in choosing the “learning opportunity” to achieve a certain goal. Those who design the courses and programs belong to WGU Program Councils consisting of faculty members and industry specialists. WGU agents are all contract laborers; there is no tenure. So we are left to contemplate Jerry Farber’s concerns, expressed in 1998:
If you take the new developments in educational and communications technology, lift them up on a millennial wave of technological enthusiasm, integrate them into the competency-based/outcomes movement in education which has persisted in one form or another since the 1970s or earlier, and put them in the service of corporate interests, which are moving toward a de facto takeover of higher education, you come up with a rough approximation of what appears to be happening in a great many colleges and universities at the turn of the century (7 ).
ACTION PLAN : Check to see if there is a stealth bill to establish WGU as an “official branch” in your state. We recently discovered one in California. If so, consider educating your elected representatives now.
- Ask your legislators how the “competency based” instruction of WGU will impact your state’s public university systems? What is the cost-benefit analysis? How many jobs will be lost to out-of-state WGU employees? The low cost of WGU tuition— its main selling point to “customers” —is politically attractive to state legislators since it undercuts for-profit providers who voraciously consume federal and state grant money and are difficult to regulate. One can argue that our legislators should be investing in state community colleges, which offer even lower-cost vocational training programs, many with online components and a richer learning experience.
- Ask your legislators to explain WGU’s lack of transparency and accountability. WGU refuses to release official accreditation reports. It is impossible to assess their “success” in terms of graduation and retention rates until they release longitudinal studies of yearly cohorts for each program. Currently they refuse to provide this data on the basis they are a “private non-profit.”
(1) AFT, “Teaming Up With Technology,” p. 19.
(2) Both Farber and Johnstone discuss these.
(3) This is a quote from Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Steven J. Tepper in Jenkin’s “Confronting the Challenges…” a MacArthur Foundation report, p. 61.
(4) These concerns are found in both Farber and Johnstone.
(5) Paulson, 124.
(6) See Paulson for this explanation. Note that there are other models of disruptive unbundling, for example University of Phoenix.
(7) Farber, 809-10.
AFT. “Teaming Up with Technology: How Unions Can Harness the Technology Revolution on Campus.” Report of the Task Force on Technology in Higher Education. January 1996.
Farber, Jerry. “The Third Circle: On Education and Distance Learning.” Sociological Perspectives. 41.4 (1998): 797-814.
Jenkins, Henry et al. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.” Occasional Paper on Digital Media and Learning. MacArthur Foundation.
Johnstone, Douglas. “A Competency Alternative: Western Governors University.” Change. 37.4 (July-Aug 2005): 24-33.
Paulson, Karen. “Reconfiguring Faculty Roles for Virtual Settings.” The Journal of Higher Education. 73.1 (Jan-Feb, 2002): 123-140.
Nancy Welch, a professor of English at the University of Vermont, relays a contemporary Dickensian tale of academic life in her guest blog .
A tale of "haves and have-nots" (or life and death) at the University of Vermont
When University of Vermont President Daniel Fogel resigned this summer in the wake of a Peyton Place scandal involving his wife and a vice president, trustees rewarded him with a golden handshake that has proved much more shocking for Vermonters than who in the administration building was trying to sleep with whom.
According to the deal Fogel struck with trustees, he’ll receive a monthly salary of more than $35,000–including a car, housing, and “wellness” allowance–for a leave that’s to extend to the start of the Fall 2013 semester. At that point he’ll join the English department at an annual salary of $195,000–more than double the department average for a full professor.
How do the trustees justify such largesse, especially when students face another tuition hike and campus workers have been told to expect frozen wages and benefit cuts? On the grounds of compassion, explained board chair Robert Cioffi: the former president has “poured his heart and soul” into the university; he now needs the university’s support given “the personal issues he is facing.”
I would have liked these trustees to have met one of my colleagues, Steve, who passed away in Summer 2008 just after he poured his heart and soul into teaching a summer session first-year composition class. Steve taught at UVM for nine years. Most often, he was given three composition courses each semester, six courses a year not including summer. But UVM still called him “part-time,” which meant that he wasn’t eligible for UVM’s health insurance plan. As a result, he paid $356 each month for an individual insurance plan, with a deductible of up to $18,750 a year.
When he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and underwent two rounds of debilitating chemotherapy, he could have used–he desperately needed–time off. (He would bring a chair with him into the Xerox room so he could sit, head resting on the copier, while Xeroxing handouts for his students.) Given that he was also caring for his disabled father, some compassion from the university he’d served would have been both welcome and deserved. But in two rounds of negotiations with “part-time” faculty, UVM’s administration declined to recognize that faculty teaching six, eight, and more courses a year are not in fact part-time and should receive UVM healthcare benefits. Steve now needed not only to pay $356 a month for his insurance but $8,200 for each chemotherapy infusion. He continued teaching at UVM; he also began teaching additional courses at other area colleges. He was teaching to save his life.
In summer 2008 after he held final conferences with his students, returned their papers, and turned in their grades, Steve checked into hospice and a few days later died. I attended the funeral lunch and met his parents. They were so proud that he had been a lecturer at UVM. And I am so ashamed at what this university’s administration did to him and continues to do to others.
So, Mr. Cioffi, meet Steve. And try meeting more faculty, service workers, and staff. It might deepen your acquaintance with people who make remarkable contributions to our state university and who are miraculously able and willing to be UVM?s heart and soul without car, housing, and “wellness” allowances. It might also broaden your idea of compassion and how broadly it should be shared.
For further information:
Fogel’s separation package
[The trustee chair’s defense of the package was in the Burlington Free Press story “Governor Says Compensation Is Corporate” that is only available to subscribers or through ProQuest]
Guest blogger Johann Neem is Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University and author of the book "Creating a Nation of Joiners" (2008).
“Faculty Productivity Considered”
In a recent post “Campus CFO’s are Right” (1) on The Chronicle of Higher Education website, education reformer and critic Richard Vedder slams faculty for their low productivity, and urges that faculty be required to be in their office from 9am to 5pm, and to teach more classes.
Vedder seems to have lost touch with the creative economy of the 21st century, drawing instead from the 19th-century theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor. He seems to think that creative work can be produced on an industrial model. He makes several mistakes here.
First, he assumes that there is a productivity problem. There is no reason to think this. Studies in fact show that faculty often work over time to meet their teaching and scholarly goals. Moreover, productivity cannot be measured by the number of classes taught, but by the effectiveness of the classroom experience. Efficiency requires doing the same for less, not doing less for less.
Second, he assumes that creative work can be standardized and made predictable. In fact, the most creative businesses have sought to develop college campus-like environments. The entire culture of Silicon Valley, including large corporations like Microsoft, has been oriented around fostering creativity by allowing employees greater flexibility. Thus, businesses build campuses, order pizza, and even provide couches and common areas. They allow their employees to work all night, or all day. The best corporations know that creative work is not done on a factory model, but instead by setting clear goals and allowing workers to meet them in their own way.
Despite Vedder’s accusations, colleges have been at the forefront of productivity. The best businesses have emulated colleges. Vedder’s solutions would undermine productivity rather than increase it.
Vedder offers two objections to this claim. First, he argues, that most scholarly research is trivial. That is his judgment. In fact, the purpose of scholarly research is not to gain a high number of readers, but to influence our understanding of the world. If scholars read it, and if they use it to pursue new knowledge, it matters little whether most of it reaches the general public. What matters is whether it is used in ways that help the public. And here, there are many examples. Small research innovations in science can be combined to produce new innovations of greater reach, whether as commodities like a fuel-efficient car, or simply deeper understandings of the nature of atoms.
The same is true in the humanities and social sciences. Scholarly work is translated to the broader public through teaching, through textbooks, and through the work of popularizers and synthesizers. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, relies heavily on social science research for his best-selling books. The same is true for historians David McCullough and Gordon Wood. What matters, then, is not whether a particular article or book has sold thousands of copies, but whether it is a contribution to our understanding of the world. And if it is, in time it will be used.
Vedder’s second objection is that most faculty never publish an article each year. Of course, again he is making some mistakes. Scholarly research takes time. In history, a single article can take years of research—much of it, of necessity, outside the office. By forcing more publishing more quickly, Vedder will ensure the triviality he fears.
More important, most faculty publish little because most American colleges are focused on teaching and have high teaching loads. Vedder uses the low teaching loads at a handful of American research institutions like UT-Austin to account for the low scholarly productivity of faculty at teaching institutions. He is simply stereotyping and mixing categories.
One must wonder, then, what motivates Vedder. Perhaps he simply dislikes faculty because they have the ability to exercise control over their working conditions. Perhaps he supports the trend reallocating authority in American work life from workers—whether faculty or unionized employees—to managers.
But I think that there is a deeper issue. Vedder cannot fathom the fact that faculty teach and write because they want to share knowledge with the world. If they wanted to make money, they would have gone to business school, law school, or architectural school and then worked in the kinds of offices Vedder admires. But what makes faculty so productive is that they are motivated by other ends, that they are mission oriented. Most corporations struggle to develop this sense of mission in their employees in order to increase productivity; colleges have it handed to them. Their faculty are willing to work harder for less money than other professionals because they are committed to a calling.
Vedder’s perspective is not that of someone seeking to improve teaching and scholarship. Rather it is of someone who thinks that faculty must be controlled and put in their place. It seems that Vedder cannot imagine a world in which people believe in their work, and thus he seeks to impose incentives and rules that would fundamentally alter the source of faculty creativity and hard work.
(1) Ironically, you can get to Vedder’s article by TYPING the address in the URL: http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/campus-cfos-are-right/29787
Victor Borden has a very interesting and informative article “The Accountability/Improvement Paradox” in Inside Higher Ed (April 30, 2010) http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/04/30/borden
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