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.
"The business person in me thinks this sounds like a really good plan," said Wilmot, who also holds several degrees from UMUC. "Some of the top universities in the country are private nonprofit universities. I don't think they necessarily need to be a state school to accomplish their mission."
But some faculty members said they felt excluded from the process, noting that no faculty or staff served on the committee that developed the proposal. Jane Burman-Holtom, a UMUC adjunct professor who serves on the university's advisory committee, said she is skeptical of the proposal because it seems focused on business changes, not academics.
"We were once again blindsided," she said. "The state requires shared governance, and you try to participate in the best of your ability in shared governance, and you're rebuffed at all levels."
The faculty advisory council voted this month to spurn a request from the university administration to tweak the council's governing document in a way that members believed would give it less of a formal say in the college's decisions.
In another potentially significant shakeup to UMUC's business model, officials are exploring competency-based education, which has been embraced by some for-profit online institutions and public universities like the University of Wisconsin.
"Competency-based models acknowledge that many students, especially adult students, come to a university with prior knowledge because they've been working," said UMUC Provost Marie Cini, who noted that the average UMUC student is age 32.
"If you're good at math and you have to sit through a basic math class, you waste time and money," Cini said. "So it's a way for students to show what they already know."
In the model that UMUC is developing, Cini said students would likely have access to a library of learning materials and be required to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic through "real world" exercises — like drafting a marketing proposal in a business class.
Students would finish the class as quickly or as slowly as they could complete the coursework, though Cini said there would likely be some time cap. Professors would serve more as "coaches" to help guide the students through the coursework.
Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said he thinks competency-based education "can be an appropriate model for some material and for some students," but added he is "very skeptical that competency-based [education] can be an appropriate model for the vast majority of disciplines and the vast majority of students."
Kennedy, the faculty member, said he already teaches a business class that has some competency-based elements and is supportive of the concept as long as it does not lead to cutting faculty and that the university continues to teach in some traditional ways, including how to work as a team.
"It might improve their game," Kennedy said, referring to UMUC.
Cini said the university hopes to pilot a small number of classes using the competency-based model in the spring.
Like the potential for a nonprofit business model, competency-based education could help UMUC compete against for-profit online institutions and public colleges seeking to lure older students, Cini said.
"We're finding that our competition now is everywhere," Cini said. "It's not just for-profits, it's every university that's trying to do more innovative things and reach out to adult students."