The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) is in crisis with declining student numbers. The challenge has accelerated in the last few years, and enrollments are projected to drop another 6.5 percent this fall, greatly due to competition from "for-profit" universities and a loss of military students.
Unfortunately, UMUC's long term response to this challenge has led the institution to weaken its educational standards and imitate for-profit rivals. This is seen in UMUC's 5-year campaign to make student work less costly and less difficult, reducing the distance learning term from 12 to eight weeks, jettisoning peer-reviewed textbooks in favor of a hodgepodge of Internet resources, abolishing proctored exams, allowing substantially more credits to be earned through demonstrated student "competencies," promoting classroom credit for student "life experiences," and replacing final exams with "class projects." A current proposal would demote faculty to the role of "coaches," guiding students through standardized course work.
UMUC President Javier Miyares maintains that UMUC needs to change its "business model." A team of volunteer business consultants, the "Ideation Group," was created to do this. Rather than focusing on academic questions and strategies to enhance a solid university classroom experience, the team concentrated on "market and competitive dynamics" and ultimately concluded that UMUC needs to compete "on a more level playing field with the for-profit companies who are now dominating the market." UMUC's most recent response, then, is to follow the for-profit lead.
Accordingly, UMUC also seeks to remove restrictions imposed by law and University System of Maryland policy. This would enable UMUC to rid itself of oversight by the system and the state legislature in matters of procurements, employee benefits and shared faculty governance.
And the faculty? Faculty participation in UMUC policymaking is today nearly negligible, notwithstanding university system mandates of shared governance. At one time, there was a large full-time teaching faculty whose members were recognized for their professional expertise and who enjoyed the academic freedom to author their own classes. With the move to distance learning in the 1990s, UMUC shifted its focus to employing part-time adjuncts who are paid less per class and receive no retirement, medical or other benefits. Over 90 percent of the stateside classes are now taught by adjuncts. UMUC's Europe Division has just seen a sweeping reduction of full time faculty as well.
In place of faculty subject matter and teaching expertise, an enlarged administrative bureaucracy worked over the years to standardize academic fare and instructors' teaching practices, frequently hiring expensive outside consultants to rework UMUC's "business model." Faculty have largely been shunted to the side.
While the adjuncts now dominating UMUC classrooms can certainly be exceptional instructors, most quickly learn that UMUC has no intention of providing an avenue to full-time employment. Instructors find little reason to give loyalty and sustained effort to an employer that has chosen to exploit the current glut of PhDs. As the administration increasingly infringed on the instructor's control of individual classrooms, the majority of adjuncts could register little opposition. Most needed the work, and so it was easier to be quiet, collect a check and hustle additional classes elsewhere.
The administration claims faculty members can voice their concerns about university policies through UMUC's Faculty Advisory Council (FAC). This council has little power, however, and the administration makes all major decisions without consulting FAC. The administration's definition of shared governance would be unrecognizable at any other institution in the University System of Maryland, or elsewhere in the nation.
UMUC's strategy is unlikely to stimulate a turn-around for student enrollments. While low, out-of-state tuition rates and glossy ads might entice some, UMUC's for-profit strategy will drive away the kinds of students who would strengthen its reputation in the long run.
Students emerging with a watered down education in the era of globalization will be at a disadvantage. Maryland and the nation need graduates who are exposed to the rich cultural legacy of western universities and who can leave the university to participate on an equal footing with foreign competitors.
We question the competency of UMUC senior leadership and urge the University System of Maryland to think of its institution-wide reputation. Does the system want a faltering UMUC that is doubling down on its failed growth strategy, or does the system want an institution that will return to its leadership role as a university embracing modern technology while producing a higher standard of university education?
As it stands today, University of Maryland University College is now contemplating the last stage of its metamorphosis into what can only be called a diploma mill.
Bruce Hull taught for UMUC-Europe during the past 33 years and was the chair of FAC from 2009 through 2011; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Maggie Cohen is a 27-year veteran of UMUC and is the current chair of FAC; she also serves on USM's Council of University System Faculty (CUSF); her email is email@example.com. The thoughts expressed by the authors are not necessarily that of the current FAC as a body.
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