The University of Maryland, University College has a history of experimentation.
With its roots in a 1920s night school, the institution expanded in the 1940s and '50s into Europe and Asia to educate military personnel. Then as the Internet flourished, it embraced online learning. Now the state university is experimenting again.
This month, President Javier Miyares unveiled a proposal from a group of business leaders he assembled that would tie the university's future more closely to the private sector. At the same time, university administrators are close to piloting a learning model called "competency-based education" that considers professors coaches who help students progress at their own pace.
The new business model would make the school a quasi-public nonprofit, with the University System of Maryland Board of Regents retaining oversight. Miyares said the move would allow partnerships with for-profit companies, which would be difficult for a state institution to do.
And advocates say competency-based education would enable the school's mostly adult learners to save time and money because they can advance when they prove they are competent, regardless of how long that takes.
But critics say what it means to be competent isn't clearly defined, and Miyares met with backlash over the business model proposal, which he shared with the university community despite the fact that many details are unknown. Some faculty members said they felt blindsided, overlooked and confused.
"We don't know what to make of it," said James Kennedy, a faculty member of UMUC's advisory council, who's concerned by the lack of faculty input in the proposal. "There are a lot of unanswered questions about the impact this is going to have on students and faculty."
Miyares contends changes are needed at UMUC, a mostly online university catering to adult learners and military members. The Adelphi-based school has seen its once rapid enrollment growth slow amid a drawdown of troops overseas and a national trend of falling enrollments at online colleges.
Enrollment dropped from a peak of 43,000 in 2011 to a projected 37,000 this fall, a decline that Miyares believes is a threat to the university's future viability.
Miyares said he is seeking input from the university community on the nonprofit proposal through next year and said it needs significant further review to determine how far the university could venture into the quasi-public realm. But, he said, "At the end of the day, I am going to recommend some flexibilities, for sure.
"The way we are structured, in my judgment, it will be very difficult to compete at the national level," Miyares said.
Even supporters of the changes that Miyares is seeking say they have little information on which to base their opinions, but are trusting the administration will save UMUC from a potential downward spiral.
UMUC needs to expand its revenue base, as it is more tuition-dependent than other state universities, getting about 10 percent of its funding from Maryland, compared to about 30 percent for most other colleges in the state university system.
In March, UMUC laid off 70 employees, citing a $25 million budget shortfall as a result of the enrollment decline. The university also canceled plans to transition dozens of adjunct professors to full-time roles.
Before making its recommendation about the business model, the committee of business leaders examined several options for UMUC, including becoming a for-profit institution.
The group said UMUC could better partner with the private sector if it were not subject to state regulations it described as burdensome, including the Public Information Act, the Open Meetings Act, financial disclosure rules and certain procurement laws.
Miyares said the committee's proposal could allow UMUC to partner with for-profit educational software companies seeking to benefit from UMUC's still relatively large enrollment base. Such partnerships, he said, could allow for the development of better web learning platforms that could make the university more competitive with other online institutions.
A partnership with a for-profit online university is not under consideration, Miyares said.
The growth of the Internet "is precipitating a rush of services and products for the online education environment," Miyares said. "We are an attractive partner."
Robb Wilmot, who is pursuing a doctorate in a program connected to UMUC and serves as chair of the university advisory council, said he was initially "surprised" by the proposal but is pleased by the details he's heard.