Partnership comes with perils when it comes to St. Cloud State University and Academic Partnerships

14 July 2023

The twin problems of declining student enrollment and unprecedented budget deficit are not by any imagination unique to St. Cloud State University (SCSU). However, the approach to solving them makes the difference. Among the measures being taken to mitigate these hard times include program cuts and faculty retrenchment.

It was Albert Einstein before me who remarked that problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. The conventional approach at many state universities for financial relief of always seeking additional sources of money. It appears with shrinking state allocations the desperate solution is alliances with for-profit corporate entities.

This reminds me of instances when we went to war to keep our oil and gas supply sources open, while wasting 40% to 50% of available energy with inefficient end-use energy technologies. However, transitioning from supply-side to demand-side energy management mitigated our energy problem. For example, utility companies initiated energy auditing process to have their customers use fluorescent lightbulbs, do laundry at off-peak times and to use proper insulation R-value. The same approach can also mitigate the budget deficit problem at St. Cloud State University, by making sure that available money is spent on projects or invested judiciously.

I remember when the composition of national search committees at SCSU for open administrative positions were made up of administrators, faculty, staff and stakeholders representing other unions on campus, without involving search firms. The top three candidates’ pros and cons were sent to the president, who decided who gets hired. Excellent candidates were hired at less the cost search firms charge. Professors are scholars and researchers in different areas of specialization and are consultants to many corporate clients. They can also be enlisted in some university projects to minimize costs. St. Cloud State University could generate great ideas for decision-making by establishing a suggestion box to solicit ideas anonymously for this purpose from the university community. Some of the ideas may be about new student recruitment and financial projects with decent returns on investment. And if you have to explain a promotional phrase aimed at wooing target populations, it is esoteric and meaningless to the targeted groups. What you have in mind when you use a vague promotional phrase may not be obvious to the target audience. Proliferation of administrators is a drain on limited revenue. It’s absurd to have a vice president of one, and then a deputy VP, an assistant VP, associate VP, all of the same thing.

Meanwhile, SCSU is in alliance with Academic Partnerships, a Dallas-based for-profit online program manager (OPM), started in 2007 by Randy Best, an influential conservative political donor. St. Cloud State University has been one of the clients of Academic Partnerships since 2021. Academic Partnerships claims expertise in online education and recruitment of high-quality students for the partnership. Realized tuition money from students is shared 50/50 between St. Cloud State University and Academic Partnerships. An unfortunate aspect in the creation of such alliances, is that the unions, such as the Faculty Association (FA), often have little or no clout in what is often generally described as shared governance between the university administration and unions. Decisions are often made with less than adequate give-and-take discussions with the unions. The InterFaculty Organization (IFO), which represents the interests of faculty at the seven Minnesota state universities, works with Faculty Associations at each university as the bargaining unit in contract negotiations that are supposed to be binding on both the administration and faculty at the universities.

In signing the alliance between St. Cloud State University and Academic Partnerships, did the administration factor in the concerns of faculty? At stake are academic integrity, faculty intellectual property rights and copyright concerns. There are also concerns of quantity over quality, run-of-the-mill products of such partnerships and the fact that the university is more than a place where the emphasis is only on rolling out just work-ready individuals. It must be realized that hands-on education and literary education are complimentary, not contradictory. As scholars and researchers, the FA leadership knows of preponderance of evidence that alliances with for-profit companies such as Academic Partnerships “do material harm to students, faculty, staff, and the entire mission of public higher education.” These are all the concerns of the IFO and FA at St. Cloud State University that should not be overlooked in delving into any alliance with a for-profit enterprise such as Academic Partnerships. It has to be pointed out that labor/management relations should not be misconstrued as a country club affair devoid of disagreements. Disagreements, where they exist, ought to be professionally and respectfully deliberated and negotiated using compromises from both sides as needed.

As far as any labor unions or associations are concerned, it goes without saying that a house divided cannot stand. It is unsavory and unethical for any union member to betray or sabotage their union. Individuals who are not union members but still enjoy all the benefits of union-negotiated contracts should show decency and decorum and refrain from behaviors undermining and inimical toward the union. One retired faculty couldn’t be more articulate with his statement regarding the unenviable budget situation at St. Cloud State University. According to Professor Emeritus Mark Jaede, “There is no longer any such thing as ‘fair share’ fees. They were eliminated by an anti-union court ruling years ago. Therefore, the term ‘full membership’ is meaningless. You are either a member of the union or not. If you are a member, you pay dues and you can vote and participate in union governance. If you are not a member, you pay no fees or dues but still receive all the benefits of union negotiated contracts, including the enforcement of the contract by union representatives. If you choose not to be part of the union, you are essentially a free rider. If enough faculty members leave the union, it becomes non viable. So, leaving the union is a big decision, and one to be made thoughtfully.”

Let me add that faculty members who don’t speak up in solidarity with their colleagues slated for retrenchment would be on their own in their time of misfortune. I recall the post-war statement of German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller who said he did not speak up when the Nazis came for the Communists, Jewish, Unionists and Catholics because he was a Protestant. And when they came for him they took him too because there was nobody left to speak up for him.

You see, leadership, Stephen Covey observed, is not position but moral authority, which comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity and treating people with respect. We must understand that as an organization, SCSU is a system, which relies on all its individual parts for functionality and sustainability. No part should be disrespected or looked down on. Synergy will not be the case in the absence of unity. As Henry Ford once observed, “Coming together is the beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” I am optimistic that SCSU will survive its present financial and enrollment challenges with more inclusiveness, transparency, effective listening, and consistency in policy enforcement.

Anthony Akubue is a resident of St. Cloud, Minnesota.

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