Online Degrees: The Rodney Monroe Case

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?

9 Responses to Online Degrees: The Rodney Monroe Case

  1. Online education will be an important part of the future of higher education. Right now online education is being used as a good way to make money with no attention paid to the quality, who is actually taking the course, and cheating that is even more rampant than in the classroom. Which is why the best schools are approaching this cautiously. Many of the big online programs from reputable colleges do not yet involve giving credit.

  2. Gooze – No one is trying to turn UVA, or any major institution, into the University of Phoenix. One could argue that they’re trying to find a way to bring some actual legitimacy to online education.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a full-fledged proponent of brick-and-mortar classrooms. I know I focus far better when I’m face to face with a professor (even if in a large lecture hall) than I do behind a TV screen. I’ve watched some lectures on YouTube for fun over the years and find myself losing focus after about 15-20 minutes, and start clicking away from the video.

    But it isn’t to say that there isn’t some way to properly, responsibly, incorporate the online medium into higher education. Teachers are already finding ways to put homework assignments online, using interactive programs to reinforce the classroom lessons.

    Personally, I think the “online education” squabble is a red herring in this whole Sullivan v. BOV mess, but it’s become a trending topic none the less.

    So while I agree that a quality university should always be centered around a traditional in-residence campus, let’s not be afraid to see if there isn’t *some* value to online education hidden in the for-profit “college degree industry” with which we have come to associate it.

  3. “Personally, I think the “online education” squabble is a red herring in this whole Sullivan v. BOV mess … “.

    That certainly seems to be the case to me.

    If I had to guess (and sadly, we are all still guessing) – I’d say it was a disagreement over budgets and tuitions.

  4. DJR:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/college-inc/post/e-mails-show-u-va-board-leaders-planning-teresa-sullivans-exit/2012/06/19/gJQAAytGpV_blog.html?hpid=z2

    From the little we know so far. It appears that online education was very much on t e minds of Dragas and Kington who were the putsch leaders.

  5. It was on-line. The condo-developer read some mainstream press op-ed pieces and strategically and dynamically decided to change in the phone both into SUPER WRECTOR and destroy the University.

  6. re: innovation… how come innovation usually does come come from public institutions and beyond that the public institutions perceive innovation as a threat?

  7. Why is it that the VA community colleges and military accept online learning with open arms but the ivy walled snobs refuse to even acknowledge the possibility? What is the difference between repairing a radio through simulation and learning the insides of nano-technology using the same method? Has History or Sociology changed so much that we need an overqualified geezer to bore students to tears? Many of these courses are taught by interns anyway, while the real teacher is out making big bucks on grant money.

    You know what really sucks about online learning? There is no direct path between the courses offered and credit earned. I have hundreds of hours in advanced IA courses that are worthless because the producers don’t give credit and employers won’t acknowledge you even took the courses. Someone spent a whole bunch of taxpayer money to develop fancy virtual training environments that nobody cares about. At this point in my life, that now includes me.

  8. U.Va. will never become an online focused school until they figure out a way to do binge drinking online.

    More on point, universities are at a technological tipping point. The core technology – a big room with a speaker at the front – dates back to Plato. New technologies make things possible that were not possible before, help what used to be boring to become game like, and make possible much needed reductions in cost. It’s not just online, although that’s part of it. It’s coming, to everywhere, and the right strategy is to embrace the possibilities rather than retreating in fear.

  9. “re: innovation… how come innovation usually does NOT come come from public institutions ”

    OOPS!

    there are quality ways to integrate online into traditional … In fact, it’s not really about traditional without online or online without traditional and one would expect “leadership” Universities to do it better.

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