"....they risk neglecting their primary mission of teaching students."

By , Published: March 28

Has greed swamped learning as the top priority for America’s institutions of higher education?

As U.S. universities increasingly model themselves on private businesses for the sake of cost efficiency and economic success, they risk neglecting their primary mission of teaching students.

Financial controversies at the University System of Maryland and Howard University drive home those dangers.

At Maryland, the dispute centers on the fast-growing University College, or UMUC. It offers adult education courses, mostly online, to 92,000 students worldwide. Critics say the school has lowered academic standards in order to gin up business.

At Howard, the uproar is over the revelation that a handful of top administrators received six-figure bonuses in 2010 despite severe budget pressures that hurt students and professors.

Both brouhahas reflect a new world on campus, where schools are borrowing corporate practices such as aggressive marketing and big paychecks to senior executives.

“When you look at universities today, the educational mission often seems to be at the bottom of the list of priorities,” said Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

The stakes at UMUC rose last week when its hitherto celebrated president, Susan Aldridge, resigned under growing criticism and with no specific public explanation.

Her departure came as current and former employees told my colleague, Daniel de Vise, that the school has short-changed academic standards in its eagerness to boost enrollment and revenue.

In particular, last year UMUC replaced many 14-week courses with eight-week ones. It also eliminated proctored final exams for undergraduate courses. Students get the same credit as before.  The school says students with careers and families find the shorter courses more convenient. It insists the courses pack in just as much learning as previously.

Not everyone agrees.

“This idea of dramatically shortening the time frame, what’s lost is the ability to reflect on what is being learned,” said John W. Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors.

“I think it is really a rationalization in many ways for a model that is much more oriented toward getting people in, and through, and finished, as opposed to being focused on what they’re actually learning,” he said.

UMUC is also accused of trying to keep the controversy secret by requiring dismissed employees to promise as part of their severance package not to go public with complaints. Acting President Javier Miyares said the state attorney general’s office had approved every severance package, and that the public should be skeptical of allegations by disgruntled former staffers.

“Keep in mind you are getting a fairly biased sample of our employees,” he said.  That might be. But it doesn’t explain why Aldridge is out as president.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was so concerned about the allegations that he sent the University System of Maryland a letter demanding explanations.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said Wednesday evening that the state was taking the matter seriously and predicted it would be resolved.

“In the fullness of time, and in response to Senator Harkin’s inquiry, I think we’ll see that many of the concerns are not supported by fact,” O’Malley told Washington Post editors and reporters at a dinner in Annapolis.

(Full disclosure: Some criticisms of UMUC are similar in ways to those of for-profit schools such as those run by The Washington Post Co.’s Kaplan division.) At Howard, faculty and alumni are in an uproar over the recent disclosure that bonuses totaling more than $1 million were paid to three top administrators in 2010.

This came to light at a time when tuition is rising sharply and University President Sidney Ribeau warned last month that all professors and staff could suffer four to six days of furloughs later this year. The Faculty Senate expressed “great disappointment and outrage” over the bonuses in a letter to Ribeau last month.

Faculty Senate Chair Eric Walters, who teaches biochemistry, declined in an interview to discuss specifics at Howard prior to a faculty meeting with Ribeau at an annual retreat this weekend. In general, though, Walters said “a disgusting model” is warping priorities at American universities.

“This is not Wall Street. This is education. If you’re going to send a message to young minds about the path to success, is it just about monetary success, or is it about building an academy that is about service?” Walters said.

Even as universities look for new ways to pay the bills, education and service should be the ideals they put first.