COLLABORATION

Arizona State, Cengage partnership cleared of corruption

SOURCE: Cole Keister/Unsplash
ASU's case has raised questions about the ethics of PPP collaborations

An external review into corruption within Arizona State University’s (ASU) partnership with learning platform Cengage has found no evidence of wrongdoing, in a case that posed questions about the ethics of such collaborations when it comes to student costs.

In May, students accused the university of profiting off their contract with Cengage, which forced students to pay US$100 to access course documents and submit assignments. The university was also alleged to have chosen Cengage as a partner in order to receive a grant for the university provost to spend on a “pet project.”

Former chief justice of Arizona’s Supreme Court, Ruth McGregor, lead the investigation into the contracts and found no evidence of wrongdoing. While the university does retain a portion of the US$100 student fee, McGregor concluded the practice is “consistent with the terms of governing contracts and made in recognition of ASU’s contribution to course content and development.”

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She noted a contract signed in 2015 with Cengage for an adaptive learning course in psychology that gave ASU US$25 of a US$100 student fee during the first year and US$5 each year after.

By comparison, the 2016 contract under investigation for the economics courses gives ASU US$21 of a US$100 student fee in the first year and US$1 each year after. This, McGregor notes, is “not unusual and acknowledges the contributions of each party” as the university is responsible for instructional design and related expertise.

The accusations first came to light after rogue ASU economics professor, Brian Goegan, highlighted what he saw as unethical policies in an email to students on April 18 which was later posted by a student on Reddit.

In the email, Goegan claimed the university’s deal “requires students to pay just to turn in their homework” and said any professors posting assignments on free learning platforms like Blackboard or Canvas were “forced to move those same assignments behind the MindTap paywall.”

Goegan claimed the reason behind this was because the company would pay ASU a grant in exchange for the use of their online programme management portal, MindTap.

The email also exposed a policy that Goegan says required economics professors to fail “at least 30%” of students in three modules.

“We were told that we needed to set a baseline against which the Provost’s project could be compared,” Goegan wrote. “For many instructors, this meant setting students up to fail so it could seem like the Provost swooped in and fixed a problem that doesn’t exist.”

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McGregor, however, found “no evidence, other than the statements of Professor Goegan that were contradicted by other clinical professors,” to support this allegation.

The case drew the attention of students and universities alike and raised questions about public-private partnerships in academia.

recent study from The Chronicle of Higher Education and the P3-Edu conference, found the large majority – 83 percent – of university leaders are increasing partnerships with private firms. Another P3-Edu report points out that such agreements are becoming more prevalent as universities face intense financial pressure, especially in a period of wavering enrolment and budget crunches.

Online education and online programme management are likely to be big areas for this expansion with thousands of colleges already signing up to these virtual platforms. Arizona State’s predicament should be heeded as a warning of the potential financial and ethical pitfalls of such agreements.