Several faculty members and students at Purdue University said they were surprised Thursday at the announcement that their institution was acquiring the giant for-profit Kaplan University. And along with the surprise came many questions about what the announced deal will mean for the long-term quality and reputation of the Indiana land-grant institution.
"My initial reaction was: What the hell?" said Christopher F. Kulesza, who is finishing his doctoral degree in political science at Purdue and teaches online classes in the summer. The university has, for years, discussed ways to increase its online offerings, said Mr. Kulesza, because it felt a step behind its peers in that area.
"I just never thought this was where we would be going," he said.
Mr. Kulesza, the former president of the Graduate Student Government, said he remains ambivalent about the partnership between Purdue and Kaplan but wonders how two institutions with such different missions and ways of operating will find a way to work together.
Some student leaders, however, reacted positively to the announcement.
Andrew K. Zeller, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics and president of the Graduate Student Government, supports the announced plans. "This acquisition presents tremendous possibilities for expanding access and opportunity to nontraditional students and working adults overlooked and underserved by the traditional campus model," he said in an email.
Geralyn Denger, a junior and president of the undergraduate student government, said the move would improve the value of degrees at Purdue, which will now have a national presence through its online offerings. A credential from the new online institution will probably be regarded as the same as a degree from one of Purdue's branch campuses, she said.
She said she trusts President Mitch Daniels because he has been successful in his past efforts to improve the Purdue brand.
In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Daniels also compared the new institution to a branch campus, and said there are no plans to merge programs or departments at this time.
Several faculty members, however, were less sanguine about the deal.
David A. Sanders, an associate professor in the department of biological sciences, also said he is taking a wait-and-see attitude about the venture with Kaplan. But the nature of Kaplan's operations as a proprietary college raised some concerns about how the proposal would affect the quality and value of a Purdue degree.
Mr. Sanders, chairman of Purdue's University Senate, said he is skeptical about the practices of Kaplan as a for-profit institution and the outcomes for the university’s students. The administration presented data on Kaplan's students on Thursday, Mr. Sanders said, "but without context, it's hard to evaluate what those data mean."
Mr. Daniels said that the current president of Kaplan used to work in traditional higher education. "There may be people who decide to make the same transition," Mr. Daniels said. He added that he hopes current Purdue faculty will take advantage of the expertise in online learning that Kaplan will bring to the university.
A bigger concern, said Mr. Sanders, is that the deal with Kaplan pushes the university further down the road toward becoming an institution that focuses on higher education as a ground for job training, rather than the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
"I believe in education for its own sake," he said. But many of the online, for-profit institutions are contributing to the "Walmartization" of higher education, he said, which means providing degrees as quickly and cheaply as possible. "When speed and cost become more important than quality, faculty are going to object."
Bill V. Mullen, a professor of American studies, had a stronger reaction against the move to acquire Kaplan, saying that Mr. Daniels had "sold the Purdue brand to Wall Street."
Mr. Mullen and other faculty members are also upset that they were never consulted on a deal that relates to the university's academic offerings and, in their view, violates tenets of shared governance, as defined by the American Association of University Professors.
"Faculty should have input on educational policy matters, Harry R. Targ, a professor who is director of the university’s peace studies program, said in an email. "Issues to be addressed should particularly include the academic integrity of whole degrees offered 'on-line.’"
"One would assume, since issues of staffing, developing credit, connecting with the traditional Purdue campuses are all issues of relevance," he wrote, "faculty should have been consulted and informed."
In response to an inquiry from The Chronicle, a Purdue spokesman defended the university’s acquisition of Kaplan.
"The creation of regional campuses is the exclusive purview of the Board of Trustees, just as it was when Purdue trustees created Extension centers in the 1940s and regional campuses in the 1960s," the spokesman said via email. "Additionally, both U.S. securities laws and state laws safeguarding proprietary information and trade secrets legally bound us to certain levels of confidentiality."
Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.