By Peter Galuszka
The tragedy of Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia has brought forward a number of arguments critical to the future of higher education. Some have merit; others do not.
One of the squishier topics being pushed is that somehow Internet classwork is the future of colleges. It is being touted as efficient, convenient and lets students work at their own paces. It also tends to be dominated by greedy private firms and calls into serious question what remains a crucial part of the university raison d’etre: giving credentials that let people know that a body of knowledge has actually been mastered.
For an instructive case, consider that of Rodney Monroe, who used to be Richmond’s Police Chief and then moved on to Charlotte. Back in 2008, a scandal emerged at Virginia Commonwealth University involving the school giving a degree to the powerful police chief even though he hadn’t actually met the criteria for that degree. (Yes, “credentialing” can be important.)
It turns out that Monroe got some credits from the University of Phoenix, which has been accused of being an online-based, for-profit degree factory that represents more of the challenges than the benefits of online education. Somehow, someone at VCU transferred Monroe’s invalid University of Phoenix credits to make them worthy of meeting requirements for a VCU degree, which he was awarded.
The kerfuffle raised some issues for the head of VCU, Eugene Trani, a noted local powerhouse who had bulldozed Richmond neighborhoods for VCU expansion and who also got the university in trouble by agreeing to secretive research contracts with Philip Morris, the cigarette maker that has about 6,000 people in the Richmond area.
Trani said that the problem with Monroe’s degree should never have happened and that VCU employees should have spoken up. Problem is, they did speak up. The soon-to-be retired coordinator of the program through which Monroe got his VCU sheepskin had complained that his degree should have been awarded through the University of Phoenix, not VCU and said so months before Trani made his comments.
In any event, it ended happily, for Monroe, at least. He moved on to Charlotte to become police chief to the Queen City. Presumably, VCU, the state’s largest public university, has tightened its ways of credentialing outside online courses, but I’m not sure.
This is part of the tragedy in Charlottesville. Sullivan is being vilified and fired for trying to keep at least some teaching in the classroom and not surrendering the university’s honor and prestige for the soup du jour of the alleged higher education reformers who may be trying to line the pockets of for-profit online education firms by beating the drum for the “profound crisis” on university campuses.
There are ample financial questions, to be sure. Turning out more Rodney Monroes is not a solution, however. If so, you’ll have physicians trained at the School of Quackery and lawyers at the “Dewey Cheatum & Howe Law School.” It probably won’t matter because the fiscal conservatives will be able to sleep well at night knowing that costs have been cut. And that’s the only thing that matters, isn’t it?