The Board of Regents Approves a New Business Model for the University of Maryland University College: A Serious Blow

Guest blogger David Kaloustian is a professor of English and Modern Languages at Bowie State University in Maryland.

An Unfortunately Chosen Metaphor

I note that the White Paper (see 4.b. here), which formed the basis of the Board of Regent’s change of course for higher education begins the history of UMUC with a rather unfortunately chosen metaphor:

General Lyman Lemnitzer, a former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Far East Command and the United Nations Command, once observed that the ‘sun never sets on the University of Maryland’ (2)

This is a play, of course, on the old adage that “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” which arose from the fact that the imperial expansion of the British had extended around the globe. The British and other colonial superpowers of the 19th century went into Africa and Asia and began divvying up the lot without consulting the people who lived there. History has recognized the horrific transgressiveness of these actions, and it is a high irony that the writers of this White Paper are apparently either unaware or unconcerned about the implications of this metaphor.

Although they intended the metaphor to establish the global importance of the University of Maryland, if they had read more history or literature they would have understood that the metaphor carries with it these more ominous implications. But it is also an irony that the business model that they are trying to implement is basically to the democratic processes of higher education in the state of Maryland what colonialism and imperialism were to the indigenous people of Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century. What they are in effect trying to install under the guise of catering jointly to the people and market forces is nothing less than an attempt to undermine the sacred trust that institutions of higher education have to freedom, democracy, and the search for truth. The transparent attempt, for example, to run an end around the shared governance process in adopting this so-called business model, is the recipe for something bad for education and bad for democracy.

Whose Business Model of Higher Education is This?

That’s a pretty heavy accusation. Let’s examine what they propose and see how this is so. First, let’s consider the sources of these recommendations. The White Paper notes that the President of UMUC asked the Chair of the UMUC Board of Visitors to convene “an independent group of businessmen and women” (5), later termed the “Ideation Group.” The White Paper claims that

As an outside review panel, the Ideation Group was not constrained by any obligation to the current way of doing business nor were they limited in their recommendations by any pre‐conceived outcomes presented in their charge. Their task was to provide a fresh perspective and a set of options for UMUC’s leadership to consider (5).

But this disavowal of any preconceptions and suggesting “fresh perspectives” masks the ideological preference of the group: since they are all businessmen (and women, we are assured), wouldn’t they naturally be predisposed to a business model? So the fix is in already.

Furthermore, the White Paper attempts to hide the lack of meaningful stakeholder consultation in murky rhetoric:

 The clear expectation was that [the Chair of the Visitors Board] would then consult with various stakeholder groups, share their findings with the Chancellor, and ultimately make a recommendation to the Board of Regents (5).

However, it is not clear that all the stakeholders mentioned in this brief were given equal weight. The proposal was rolled out in a supposedly “global” Town Hall meeting, but we have been to enough of these to know that the happy language trundled out at these meetings is full of assurances and rhetorical gimmickry which amount to nothing. The administrators talk at people, answer vaguely, and then claim that a “global” consultation has taken place and everybody had their say. Whatever.

But the focus group participants responded by invitation, and only 67 people participated. 67. Were faculty consulted in this, and if so, what percentage of the 67 was faculty representation and what were their responses? The White Paper does not make this clear. But this is not surprising, since one of the main things that all three of the proposed models presented in this White Paper want to do is to chip away at the public transparency of the operations of what is to remain a publicly-funded institution. We’ll come back to this.

Four Common Characteristics of Three Business Model Options in the White Paper

The three options that this cherry-picked Ideation Group and their cherry-picked focus group “stakeholders” came up with are insultingly obvious: cut costs by cutting corners; replace people with technology because technology costs less and doesn’t complain about being exploited; and become “agile and flexible” (read: find ways to further reduce the professoriate to a group of penurious beggars by hiring and firing teachers as needed).

The Ideation Group came up with 7 possible models, “Includ[ing] some options that were never really feasible” (7). Interesting. (One wonders why this group would even care to mention the non-starters, and how egregious those plans were!) But the three options they did come up with included four common characteristics:

  1. White Paper: “First, it is essential that there be established at UMUC a performance driven culture. In a competitive world in which results are critical, the skills and attitude needed to achieve those results have to be incentivized and rewarded. That requires a human resources system different than the one mandated for state agencies” (7).
    So, under the guise of performance-driven accountability, HR will be solely in control of personnel. Peer review will be threatened under such a structure, as will academic freedom. Administrators are often the worst judges of who teaches well and whose does not because they less often come from the ranks of teachers themselves.
  2. Point two is so glaringly a ruse so that the President can do what he wants without faculty input that the language of the White Paper here is risible. White Paper: “Second, the way in which the institution pursues its educational objectives has to be characterized by flexibility, efficiency and agility. Rules and regulations that are relevant and effective in an environment where uniformity is highly desirable tend to get in the way of the needed flexibility. Lengthy approval processes mean that the business opportunity may be gone before the process is completed” (8).
    So let’s do away with the pesky consultations with faculty, staff, and students and make unilateral decisions based on optimizing profits. If all stakeholders of an institution are convinced that a particular course of action is good for that institution, it’s amazing how quickly they can come together to act. Just ask Bowie State University faculty, who came together and had an administrator who was bad for the school dismissed in just a few days. Talk about striking while the iron is hot!
  3. White Paper: “Third, the ability to protect UMUC’s proprietary and competitive information requires exception to the normal requirements of transparency in public agencies. This point should not be seen as arguing for an exemption for all public disclosures, but, rather, only from those that directly involve issues related to being able to compete where information, data, and processes are sensitive competitive factors” (8).
    Again, the language practically deconstructs itself. A public institution funded with public money must be publically transparent. While point one above refers to the accountability of personnel as a laudable goal, apparently what is good for the goose is not also good for the gander, because this point tries to undermine administrative and institutional accountability.
    Plus, who owns the information and innovations that UMUC wants to protect? Shouldn’t these be the property of the professors and researchers and teachers who devise them? If a teacher puts up an online class based on her hard work and knowledge, shouldn’t that be the property of the teacher, not UMUC? I thought we were into private enterprise and keeping the fruits of our labors and all that. So, what gives?
  4. White Paper: “Fourth, as part of the need for continued enrollment growth, there may be a number of different means toward that end. In the world of business, growth often comes through mergers and acquisitions. That rarely happens in the public sector, yet should be an option for UMUC as it builds its national and international footprint” (8).
    More murky language that is so vague as to resist proper understanding, but you just know they’ve got something in mind. Here’s a possible translation: we want to outsource or otherwise throw our lot in with for-profit entities that are not beholden to Boards or the state or the true stakeholders, which is the public. We want to do what we want to do without oversight or public disclosure.

Selecting One Out of Three Bad Models

Models one and two that follow on from page 8 of the White Paper are so silly as not to need comment, but the rhetorical efficacy of trolling them out is obvious: if you start with the patently outlandish and egregious, the real proposal will seem reasonable and tame by comparison. The first model means a severing from USM, which also means a severing from the sweet lucre of the system. The first rule of business is to take free money when it is offered and cavil the conditions under which it is offered later. Which brings me to model 2. Model 2 means staying as a member of USM, but still acting without oversight or control. This would actually be the ideal model, but it’s kind of like those people who claim that because they are disenchanted with the government, they are no longer part of this country, but they continue to drink the public water, use public roads and facilities, be protected by the police and military, etc.

Model 3 is identified as the “Bubble Model.” Again, perhaps an unfortunate choice of metaphor, because we all know what bubbles tend to do.

In this model, the White Paper claims,

“Unlike the first two models, Model III starts with the existing structure. Instead of moving away from USM, this model is built on adding autonomies and exemptions from specifically delineated USM and State laws, rules, and procedures. UMUC would remain in USM but its unique character and mission would be recognized through a series of delegations from the Board of Regents and, in a limited number of instances, changes in State law” (10-11).

But again, the language of the proposal betrays itself. It claims that this would not be a moving away from the USM, but isn’t that precisely what these “autonomies and exemptions” from “USM State laws, rules and procedures” would result in? Even if some exemptions would be desirable, how would these be negotiated? And would this not be a dangerous precedent for other state institutions to follow? The White Paper claims no, suggesting that UMUC “is unlike any other university in USM and operates in a totally different market environment than any of the other institutions” (11). But you know what? Tell it to the Marines. What is this different market? And isn’t every institution unique?

The Appointment of a Managing Board

Finally, the appointment of a Managing Board is presented as a benign development. But we note that it is called a “Managing Board.” It is not called, for example, a “Consultative Board Adjunct to the Faculty, Students, and Staff.” The language of the White Paper also betrays what this portends: this august body would not be limited to providing only guidance in policy—instead, it would probably act with the President as a unilateral policy-making body while circumventing shared governance. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this proposal. This will be the new face of supposedly shared governance, which will not be shared at all. That is, after all, the business model ideal, isn’t it? The business model is traditionally an autocratic operation, not one that operates under the democratizing influences of shared governance. Furthermore, businesses are profit-driven rather than need-driven and everything is measured in terms of profitability rather than social need. When public institutions of higher education begin to internalize the bottom-line mentality of businesses, then important parts of the educational process will begin to be depreciated and compromised as business leaders privilege the skills and bodies of knowledge that will contribute to economic growth above any other consideration. What use is it to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Orwell’s 1984 or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire if we’re training people to install microprocessor chips in a computer? True education and the lessons of citizenship are not on the minds of people assembled in most corporate boardrooms. Public institutions of higher education are the last bastions of research, learning, and teaching. This is not just about the arts and humanities, either. Academic freedom is the freedom to question not only the corporate mentality which often results in exploitation and human misery, but to pursue any line of reasoning that expands the boundaries of the best that is thought and known. Businesses don’t care about any of that nonsense. Why should we expect this model to be any different?

But we should care, and that is why we should resist the proliferation of this model throughout the University System of Maryland. There are plenty of things that UMUC can do to try and improve their market share. They could begin by establishing tenured positions. This would attract better teachers which will result in a better educational product. And then they could listen to these educators. If they had in the first place, they might not be in the predicament in which they find themselves.

5 thoughts on “The Board of Regents Approves a New Business Model for the University of Maryland University College: A Serious Blow

  1. Kudos, David!!! My take on this was the effective creation (or furthering) of an imperial presidency and the creation of a new and unnecessary administrative layer that will drain resources that could be allocated more effectively to the educational mission of the institution. I also found the implicit and facile acceptance of the commodification of knowledge distasteful and troubling. A luta continua; vitoria e certa!!!

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