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UA professors: Ashford University is a bad deal for UA, students and community

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writers:

Is the University of Arizona-Ashford University-Zovio acquisition/partnership a good deal? Faculty of the UA’s Eller College of Management say no, that it is “a lemon” that would be “catastrophic.”

Does it fulfill the UA’s public mission and responsibilities as a public, land grant university, and Hispanic-serving institution? No. It violates that mission.

Did UA central administration engage in the due diligence and shared participatory deliberation and governance that befit a decision of this magnitude? No. It did not.

The announced arrangement, the full details of which still have not been shared with UA faculty, staff, and deans, raises many red flags. On behalf of College of Education signatories (with more coming) to a 20-page memo analyzing this arrangement (sent to President Robert Robbins and Arizona Board of Regents Chairman Larry Penley), we find this to be a case of three strikes and the UA should be out of the “deal.”

At the very least, with many unanswered questions, the university should not proceed further until there are rigorous risk-reward and cost-benefit analyses, and vigorous shared governance deliberation, as suggested by UA faculty members of the Strategic Planning and Budget Advisory Committee (SPBAC).

Does it make sense to partner with a university that has an ongoing record of accreditation problems and is currently on notice for its continued failure to improve on low persistence and graduation rates? With a university that has a pending lawsuit from California for allegedly defrauding veterans, returning students and students of color with misleading marketing and predatory loan practices, and a history of similar charges and settlements? With a university whose enrollments have declined significantly for years?

Is this who the University of Arizona should jump into an arrangement with, even if only for $1? No. This online, for-profit university is virtually (pun intended) the last partner with which our public university should associate.

Faculty experts in Eller’s College of Management agree. Their June 19 letter to Robbins detailed the costs: “We understand the need for capital and the need to position the University of Arizona as a market leader in a … competitive online secondary education environment. However, … the ‘asset’ we are obtaining … is a ‘lemon.’”

They identify costs for: our reputation and having to protect/clarify our program/brand; our ability to compete in high quality online markets, with losses to our enrollments/opportunities; harming revenue enhancing relationships with current/prospective donors and faculty; and liability exposure to legal entanglements stemming from possible future lawsuits between UA versus Ashford and/or Zovio, which may emerge in disputes over the contract’s terms and termination.

It is a bad business deal, with problematic partners. The Eller faculty indicate that the deal is “neither the panacea for the University of Arizona’s woes nor a sound business decision providing a sizable financial payoff.” They conclude that it would be “be a catastrophic mistake for the University of Arizona.”

In his Aug. 3 email to the campus community, President Robbins wrote of UA Global Campus (the new misnomer of Ashford University, which is neither global nor a campus, not to be confused with UA Global Initiatives’ “micro-campuses”) the following: that it would benefit the University of Arizona in “delivering on the promise of land grant access and quality education.” He also wrote, “Global Campus will serve a diverse body of students, in accord with the growing diversity of our campus and of the United States.”

What is Ashford University and Zovio’s actual record? It includes enduring failures to improve poor student persistence and retention — the “Notice of Concern” from its accreditor involves a special visit in 2021.

It faces a lawsuit from California’s attorney general alleging fraudulent practices, including misleading and predatory marketing, lending and loan collection practices, resulting in high student loan default rates. Such performance and practices are particularly troubling given that Ashford’s students are disproportionately veterans, lower income, and students of color.

It is not serving these students to partner with an institution that that is for too many a revolving door of debt accumulation, non-completion, loan default, and poor job placement. It is violating our public mission to do so, and even more to partner with Ashford (and indirectly with Zovio) to leverage monies out of it for the UA (that’s the deal). That is not so much serving students as exploiting them to extract revenue.

As for due deliberation/shared governance, Robbins wrote on Aug. 3 that “the decision to acquire Ashford University through University of Arizona Global Campus was reached after a robust and extensive discussion in which the advantages and disadvantages were weighed with varied input from more than 200 faculty members, staff and others across our campus.”

Those claims are misleading at best. The process failed to meet standards of shared governance, a value embedded in the Higher Learning Commission’s accreditation criteria, and in Arizona Revised Statute 15-1601B, as well as in University of Arizona shared governance 2018 and 2019 memoranda of agreement signed by President Robbins (calling for consultation with the full bodies of SPBAC and Faculty Senate).

Further, consultation only included selected deans, heads, and some faculty had to sign a nondisclosure agreement to be briefed. Even then they were not apprised of the entities’ names, “Antelope” and “Zebra” (acronyms for Ashford and Zovio, belying the fact that they are more predator than prey) or of materials that as the selected SPBAC faculty members wrote would be necessary, as would risk/benefit analyses, to make a sound recommendation or decision.

Secretive, selective backroom Zoom PowerPoint pitches of the deal as if participants were in a time-share presentation, are not shared governance. Neither are both ignoring and failing to respond to and address the valid concerns of the people, including the deans, who make this university work.

The Arizona-Ashford-Zovio arrangement is consequential. It merits due diligence and collaborative deliberation, not defensive dismissals of questions, concerns and PR pitches. Beware pitchmen promising riches for $1. This is a case of three strikes, and the UA should be out of the deal.

Regina Deil-Amen is a professor and director of the University of Arizona Center for the Study of Higher Education, where Gary Rhoades is a professor.

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