Middlebury Faculty Seeks to Cut Ties With Online-Education Company

The faculty at Middlebury College last week took a stand against the Vermont institution’s partnership with K12, an online-education company that has been helping the college turn its reputation as a language-instruction mecca into a business venture.

The professors voted, 95 to 16, to end the relationship with the company.

“The business practices of K12 Inc. are at odds with the integrity, reputation, and educational mission of the college,” wrote Paula Schwartz, a professor of French, in her rationale for introducing the motion.

“Press reports and court records show that K12 Inc. has a record of misleading claims and dubious business practices,” she wrote. “Middlebury’s association with K12 Inc. puts its own reputation at risk.”

The vote was not binding and may not affect Middlebury’s online ambitions. The college’s president, Ronald D. Liebowitz, said he continued to support the partnership with K12. Still, the uneasiness of the faculty is the latest example of professors at a liberal-arts college taking a hard line against potentially profitable collaborations with outside entities.

Last year faculty members at Amherst College and Duke University successfully fended off partnerships with outside online-education providers. Amherst passed on an invitation to join edX, the nonprofit provider of massive open online courses. The undergraduate faculty at Duke declined to collaborate with 2U, an online-education company, to create small, credit-bearing online courses.

Middlebury’s partnership with K12 has nothing to do with transposing the college’s own curriculum to an online format. And yet the professors there are increasingly worried about having even the slightest affiliation with the company.

In 2010, Middlebury announced that it was going into business with K12 to create Middlebury Interactive Languages, a free-standing company that would sell online language courses to elementary and secondary schools. The new company would develop the courses with faculty members at Middlebury College and its famous language school. The college would contribute its good name and own 40 percent of the venture. K12, supplying the technology and marketing expertise, would own 60 percent.

“The idea was to extend Middlebury’s leadership in higher-education language instruction into other markets,” said Bill Burger, the college’s vice president for communications, in an interview on Tuesday.

“We knew we could not launch courses independently, as we needed the technological experience and scale to allow for course development and meaningful student and course assessment,” recalled Mr. Liebowitz, Middlebury’s president, defending the partnership in an op-ed piece this month for the college’s student newspaper.

Some faculty members were skeptical from the outset. Some expressed general concerns about online education and for-profit education ventures. Others noted that K12 had been co-founded by William J. Bennett, a conservative pundit and politician who served as U.S. education secretary under President Ronald Reagan. However, there was no attempt to block the partnership.

Middlebury Interactive Languages would not share any financial information with The Chronicle. But Jane M. Swift, the company’s chief executive and a former acting governor of Massachusetts, said it had seen “significant growth over the past three years.” It now has 75 full-time employees and has moved its headquarters to downtown Middlebury, near the college. The company’s website says its courses are used in 1,200 schools, and it has several statewide contracts.

Now that Middlebury Interactive Languages is serving clients, the scrutiny of the college’s faculty has intensified.

Earlier this year, a Latin teacher at one high school that uses Middlebury Interactive Languages found errors in a Latin course and reported them to a professor in the college’s classics department. The high-school teacher thought the course had been developed by the college, but it turned out to have been developed by Power-Glide Languages Courses Inc., a company K12 had acquired years earlier.

A spokesman for Middlebury Interactive Languages could not immediately confirm how many of the company’s online courses are holdovers from K12′s previous partnerships, but he said the figure is “definitely well under 50 percent.”

The company has since “clarified in its marketing materials that the Latin courses were not developed in partnership with Middlebury or by Middlebury Classics faculty,” wrote Mr. Liebowitz, the college’s president, in his op-ed. “We have put new controls in place to help prevent similar issues in the future,” he added.

But the confusion over who was responsible for the content of the Latin course highlighted the complications that can arise when a college and a company go into business together.

The incident raised the antennae of some Middlebury faculty members, and additional complaints soon emerged. Some professors noted that the online courses being sold by Middlebury Interactive Languages do not portray same-sex couples or nontraditional families. The professors said they suspected this might have been done to avoid clashing with conservative school boards, especially in Texas, which is one of the company’s clients.

“First and foremost, K12 Inc. is a corporation that makes profit by taking taxpayer dollars for education and converting bricks-and-mortar learning with face-to-face teaching into online courses,” wrote Laurie Essig, an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies, on a student-run blog. “This model of education is part of a larger conservative agenda to defund public education and let the ‘market’ step in.” (Ms. Essig is also a contributor to The Chronicle’s blog The Conversation.)

A spokesman for K12 had no comment on the faculty’s vote, except to say the company and the college have “a strong partnership” and to refer The Chronicle to the Middlebury president’s op-ed in the student newspaper.

Mr. Liebowitz, the president, has denied all accusations of censorship and has dismissed the notion that Middlebury Interactive Languages is kowtowing to political pressures. He did, however, acknowledge the absence of nontraditional families in the company’s courses, and said the college would work with Middlebury Interactive Languages to make its new courses more inclusive.

Still, Mr. Liebowitz said, he stands behind the partnership with K12. “Middlebury’s long record of innovation and experimentation has frequently been questioned by those comfortable with the status quo,” he wrote in his op-ed. The president added that the preservation of other elements of Middlebury’s status quo—its need-blind admissions policy, small classes, and competitive pay for faculty members—may depend on the college’s ability to cultivate new revenue sources.

Ms. Schwartz, the French professor who introduced the motion, told The Chronicle that the motion was aimed at K12, rather than at Middlebury Interactive Languages.

Any decision to cut ties with K12 would have to involve Middlebury’s Board of Trustees, said Mr. Burger, the vice president for communications. At a regularly scheduled meeting this month, board members discussed the faculty’s opposition to the partnership. “It’s reasonable to say this will be a continuing discussion,” Mr. Burger said.

Clarification (5/21/2014, 2:45 p.m.): This article originally characterized Professor Schwartz as having “no problem” with Middlebury Interactive Languages. It has been changed to make clear that her motion was aimed specifically at the K12 partnership, rather that at Middlebury Interactive Languages.

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