Sunday, April 30, 2017



I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about the Purdue/Kaplan purchase, and I’m still confused.

The short version is that Purdue, a respected public university in Indiana, bought Kaplan University, a mostly online for-profit college.  The idea on Purdue’s side, as near as I can tell, is to get a ready-made boost in online market share at minimal cost; if it goes well, it may even wind up turning a profit that will bolster Purdue’s traditional campus operations.  On Kaplan’s side, it’s a way to get academic legitimacy, and to escape the regulatory scrutiny to which for-profits are subjected.  But it’s still a sort of for-profit, since it will get a cut of any revenues above expenses (if only there were a word for that…) after a few years.

The new hybrid institution doesn’t have a name yet, and we don’t yet know about its accreditation, whether it will be unionized, how it will articulate with Purdue’s other offerings, the standing of its faculty, and the like.  (As far as names go, I hope it follows in the tradition of IUPUI, which is pronounced Ooey Pooey, and goes with something like KUPUI - Kooey Pooey.  Just try saying that without smiling.)  The deal came as a surprise to Purdue faculty and staff, which may portend relative autonomy for the new institution.  Unless it doesn’t.

Others are addressing whether Kooey Pooey will be able to borrow the academic respect given to the Purdue name, or whether it will cheapen it.  I’m eagerly awaiting Tressie McMillan Cottom’s take on it, since it seems like a paradigm case of Lower Ed.

I’m stuck on the mission.

Kooey Pooey will be a “public benefit corporation,” meaning a for-profit that also has a social mission baked into its charter.  It will be vocational, sort of, and transfer-focused, sort of.  It will be online, mostly, but with ties to a campus.  It will be non-profit, yet for-profit, with a social mission, but no public money, but with an in-state discount.  

Got all that?

To really make your head hurt, imagine questions about whether foundation-supported scholarships can cover study there.  Can tax-deductible donations go to support a public benefit corporation?  I get tired just thinking about it.  And once you’ve let legislators off the hook for state support, I wouldn’t expect them to stop at the subsidiary.  

It just seems like an impossibly complicated mission.  And Purdue is already complicated.

One of the luxuries of the community college sector -- and we don’t have many -- is clarity of mission.  Community colleges teach.  Period.  They’re non-profit, publicly supported (to a decreasing extent, but still), and with a clear mission.  Even the “comprehensive” ones really only have two missions: “workforce” and transfer.  And some of us argue repeatedly that that’s really only one mission, since many jobs require bachelor’s degrees.  Transfer IS workforce, thank you very much.  Whether the program is ESL, Adult Basic Ed, Welding, Nursing, or Liberal Arts, the idea is to teach well and prepare students for the next step.  That’s all.  

Although some have strong athletic traditions, I’ve never seen a community college with anything close to the sports mania of Division 1.  Some faculty do research -- these are natural settings for the scholarship of teaching and learning -- but it’s not at the core of what we do, and I’ve never seen anyone fired for not doing it.  Some have dorms, but they’re really not about the idyllic student experience on a quad.  When push comes to shove, as it often does, community colleges are about teaching.  That’s the core.

Research universities are more complicated.  They teach, but they pay the bills and gain status through research, and they’re often known for athletics.  Now, in Purdue’s case, add a sorta/kinda non-profit that skims off the top, that’s sorta kinda for state residents but entirely self supporting, that sorta kinda comes with a stigma that the name may or may not be able to whitewash,  And that’s before getting into questions of unions, accreditation, transfer, and the rest.

Mission matters when resources get tight; it helps you prioritize.  But when your mission statement starts to resemble a Jackson Pollock painting, it loses that function.  Imagine limited resources.  (It’s a stretch, I know, but bear with me.)  Do you spend more on the football team, a new science lab, tutoring, or Kooey Pooey?  How do you decide?  And given a really ambiguous mission, how do you judge the success of Kooey Pooey?  Imagine you have to make cuts.  Do you cut research funding to prop up Kooey Pooey?  Do you cut Kooey Pooey to spare the tutoring center?  How do you decide?  And do you solicit donations to support the growth of what amounts to a for-profit subsidiary?

Mitch Daniels is a smart guy.  I’m sure he’s thought about most or all of this.  But he hasn’t said enough to clarify it, and I remain confused.  Assuming Kooey Pooey comes to fruition, what’s its mission?  Until that’s clear, I’m not sure there’s much else to say.

The only trouble with Kooey Pooey is that implies it would be in Indianapolis. We'd just have to call it Kooey Poo. Which I can't even type with a straight face. :-D
And from someone else who used to be at IUPUI: no one calls it ooey-pooey anymore. That's old terminology, and the institution (and its perception in-state, and its role in higher ed) has changed enormously since then.

Which doesn't really address the heart of your post, of course. But IUPUI always has been an institution that has served its community and its state. I'm skeptical, I have to say, about how Kooey Pooey could do that.
I was told it was "You-ee Poo-ee". I like "Koo-Poo", if only because those would be fighting words around a Boilermaker after a few boilermakers.

I don't know why you think Mitch Daniels has thought through any of the questions you raise. Like any President, he is unlikely to be there for the long haul. The issues that concern you won't show up for a decade.

Enormous State Universities are not driven by any simple mission statement. Mission statements exist to preoccupy faculty who might otherwise be watching what is actually going on. But I will assure you that basketball and football are number 1, so that tutoring center gets plenty of money if it is for athletes, less if it is for students. Research is number 2, so you can expect the profits from KooPoo to flow to those annoying necessary non-revenue sports and buyouts so researcher don't have to teach so much that their grants suffer. And, yes, the profit structure intrigues me. Its almost as if it was modeled on the universities where the teaching hospital is an actual separate company.
"Mission statements exist to preoccupy faculty who might otherwise be watching what is actually going on." Truer words were never spoken.
It's well to remember that, as governor, Mitch persuaded the legislature to throw a bunch of money into Western Governors University rather than into the development of online presences at the existing public institutions in Indiana. (In fact, part of the rationale was that Indiana could support one online platform rather than multiples.) Now he's going to throw wads of money at the remnants of a private sector failure (to be blunt about it).

I also have to say that it's not clear to me how this venture can get, or keep, accreditation. There is essentially no faculty control of curriculum or academic mission; few full-time faculty; no indication of any sort of academic freedom (e.g., protections for faculty to don't march to the institutional drumbeat); and so on.
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