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University Wins out over Faculty in Latest Dispute over Outsourced Online Programs

Attempts by the faculty union at Eastern Michigan University to fight a recent agreement the institution made with online education services provider Academic Partnerships (AP) have failed. But an independent mediator warned campus officials that the university had better limit AP's services to the confines of its contract. Otherwise, faculty and administration could well find themselves back in arbitration.

The latest disagreement started in December 2016, when Eastern Michigan issued a press release announcing the agreement with AP for various services related to current and future online degree programs. According to EMU-AAUP, the union representing some 680 faculty, union officials only found out about the new contract through coverage in local media, days after it had already been signed by the university's administration.

AP is a for-profit company that sells online education services, including recruitment and marketing services. The company was already working with the university on an online bachelor in science in nursing program, which launched in summer 2015.

The new agreement, back-dated to September 2016, covered the nursing program as well as three additional online programs: a bachelor in general studies, a master's in educational leadership and a master's in curriculum and instruction. Under the agreement, AP would earn half of all tuition paid in exchange for staffing and overseeing marketing, recruiting and promotion; enrollment advising; program development, support and implementation; and academic support. It was the latter area that the faculty union took the greatest exception to.

In a "public education" campaign launched in November 2017, the union accused the university of allowing "low-paid academic coaches" to take over the role of faculty members in such areas as online discussion, tutoring and grading. As the union put it, "These degrees will carry the EMU name. But they won't have the quality, scholarship and service that are hallmarks of a true EMU education."

The same campaign emphasized that those online coaches wouldn't be employees of the university, nor would they work directly for AP. Instead, they would be hired by "another out-of-state firm," Instructional Connections, "which pays them extremely low wages." That company has worked with AP in the past through a "strategic relationship" first announced in 2015.

In a set of grievances filed with university and state officials, the union sought a reversal of the AP contract. The latest decision covered a grievance that accused the university of violating the faculty's contractual rights in two big areas related to shared governance:

  • To give "meaningful input/involvement in matters regarding the selection and evaluation of faculty members, curriculum development, and utilization of financial resources"; and
  • To give input "in the areas of personnel, instruction, and finance at the college level."

The university responded that the agreement with AP was still just that and none of the programs at issue had actually been initiated yet, which meant there was no reason for faculty to provide input.

Mediators sided with university officials, concluding that there was "insufficient evidence" to prove that the AP service agreement violated the shared governance provisions of the collective bargaining agreement in the area of pedagogical control.

However, the arbitration decision added, if the faculty union finds violations occurring later on, it "can challenge particular activities under the service agreement in the future," particularly if AP "ventures into the areas reserved for faculty input."

"We will continue to stand up for quality education for EMU students," said Assistant Professor Tricia McTague, one of the faculty members who filed a grievance about the AP contract, in a prepared statement. "That includes monitoring AP's activity on campus, to make sure they respect our contract and do not interfere with how we teach our students."

For its part, the university said it "couldn't be happier that the arbitrator affirms the important role that faculty have in designing and implementing curriculum, but that the AP agreement was in no way a violation of the collective bargaining agreement."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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