Rocky Start for Colorado State U.’s Online-Education Start-Up

Colorado State University’s new Global Campus online-education venture laid off more than 25 percent of its operation in recent months as the start-up failed to bring in money at the pace officials had expected, according to the program’s leader.

The reduction of staff and faculty members took place over three months ending in February, a period that followed the abrupt departure of Larry E. Penley, who was chancellor of the Colorado State system and president of the Fort Collins campus. Hunt Lambert, the new chief executive of the Global Campus since March, insists the effort is now on track.

But the rocky start has raised some eyebrows in Colorado higher-education circles. And it marks the latest in a series of struggles at public online-education programs around the country.

In contrast to the University of Illinois, which last week pulled the plug on its strategy for a similar venture, also named Global Campus, Colorado is soldiering on.

Brashly, even.

Mr. Lambert argued that his about-to-break-even start-up has “cracked the code on how publics can do online.”

“What we’re doing is working,” he told The Chronicle. “So few of our peers are working.”

The Global Campus got under way in 2007, supported by a $12-million loan from the system’s Board of Governors. It hires adjuncts to teach courses based on curricula licensed from the system’s brick-and-mortar campuses. But it exists as a third campus distinct from those institutions, and, like the aborted Illinois program, it is pursuing independent accreditation.

With 757 active students on the eve of its first full year of teaching, the Global Campus hopes to expand to 12,000 students by 2012 by catering to an unserved market of working adults.

But its staff has shrunk to 32 (not including teaching faculty) from a peak of 49. Seven left through what Mr. Lambert described as “normal attrition,” and 13 were laid off. Revenue grew “more slowly than expected” as the Global Campus grappled with a recession and an accreditation delay, Mr. Lambert said.

Russell J. Meyer, provost at Colorado State’s Pueblo campus, praised the Global Campus but lamented this reality about budget pressure and the economy: “I couldn’t think of a worse time to try to start a new venture like this.”

He added, “I think we’ve got the will, and most of the wherewithal, if not all of it, to make this work in the long run.” —Marc Parry

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