Monday, May 14, 2018

A Tale of Two Accreditors

If you saw the title to this piece and kept reading anyway, bless you.

Like most of the rest of us who follow these things, I was surprised when NEASC, the regional accreditor for the New England states, shot down Connecticut’s proposal to consolidate its twelve community colleges into a single entity.  The apparent goal behind the plan was to reduce administrative and back-office costs, though I’ll admit never being convinced that the math added up. NEASC wasn’t convinced that the plan made sense, either, and sent it back. Mark Ojakian, the system president, vows to take another crack at it, but with Governor Malloy in his final year in office, it’s not clear that even a revised plan would have state backing long enough to happen.  

At almost the same time, the Higher Learning Commission -- the single largest regional accreditor, covering most of the middle of the country -- approved Purdue’s takeover of Kaplan.  Purdue already has a partnership with Indiana University with a name so clunky -- Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis -- that it goes by IUPUI, pronounced “Ooey Pooey.” Consistent with that precedent, I refer to Kaplan/Purdue as “Kooey Pooey.”  

In some basic ways, the Kooey Pooey proposal is much more radical than the Connecticut one.  Connecticut proposed to merge likes with likes, combining twelve public, nonprofit community colleges into a single statewide one.  That’s not without precedent in New England; both Vermont and Rhode Island have statewide community colleges already. All twelve colleges are unionized, so that presumably wouldn’t change.  All are public and nonprofit, so that wouldn’t change. The core of the change was cost-cutting through eliminating perceived redundancies across campuses that do essentially the same things.  I wasn’t convinced by the proposal in concrete terms, but conceptually, it made sense. There’s no particular reason the colleges couldn’t form purchasing consortia for payroll services, office supplies, or ERP’s, for instance.  They may already have, for all I know.

Kooey Pooey, on the other hand, is a merger of nonprofit public university with a privately-held for-profit one.  The former has tenure; the latter doesn’t. The former has a research mission; the latter doesn’t. The former has a version of shared governance; the latter doesn’t.  The former has an eleemosynary mission; the latter doesn’t. The latter was formed with the narrow and specific goal of making money.

Which is fine, as far as it goes.  Colleges and universities routinely partner with for-profit vendors for ancillary functions like food service and bookstores.  But in those partnerships, the internal logics of each partner can be opaque to the other without harm. That the business models are different doesn’t matter, because they’re in fundamentally different businesses.  

In the case of Kooey Pooey, though, the merger cuts to the heart of the mission.  It goes to shared governance, academic standards, and the sorts of things that should give accreditors pause, but apparently didn’t.

Accreditors have come under fire over the last few years, in the wake of so many for-profits’ failures, for being the dogs that didn’t bark.  I was glad to see NEASC step up and do what a regional accreditor should do when presented with a half-baked plan. As for the HLC, well, I hope they know something I don’t know.  Because from here, the “dog that didn’t bark” seems pretty accurate.