BY WATCHING ADAMS STAFF – 5/8/17
Although Adams State University (ASU) was put on probation by its accreditor for violations of academic integrity last year, potential problems with its online education coursework persist. After a review of the course structure and details of its implementation, ASU’s online MA in Humanities with a U.S. History Emphasis is raising serious issues that could be flagged by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) – including its accrediting structure and advertising to suggest that credit-bearing coursework is treated as open enrollment.
According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (GLI), ASU’s partner in this program: “You can enroll through the MA in Humanities with an Emphasis in American History from Adams State University. You do not have to commit to pursuing the MA degree and there is no penalty for not completing it. Sign up for as many or as few courses as you like each semester and work toward the degree at your own pace. Students must complete 30 credits to earn the degree, but may take as long to complete them as they wish.”
The June 2014 agreement between ASU and Gilder Lehrman finalized this partnership.
A July 2014 press release from GLI proclaimed, “Enrollment in the online MA program is easy: participants simply complete a free registration form with Adams State upon signing up for a Gilder Lehrman online course. Graduate students will earn their degree by completing nine Gilder Lehrman online courses and writing and defending a thesis on the Adams State campus in Colorado.”
This program was presented by Dr. Ed Crowther, Chair of the Department of History, Anthropology, Philosophy, Political Science, and Spanish (HAPPS), and approved by the ASU Board of Trustees on December 16, 2016 at a rate of $600 per course and with eligibility for Federal Financial Aid. At this course cost, the program appears to be an economical and legitimate opportunity for an advanced degree program.
However, the program’s implementation and academic integrity have encountered numerous setbacks in the past several years.
NAME AND REGISTRATION PROBLEMS WITH THE PROGRAM
The July 2014 press release stated, “The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is pleased to announce a partnership with Adams State University that presents a unique opportunity to earn a master’s degree online. In the newly created Gilder Lehrman M.A. in American History from Adams State University, participants will be able to pursue an accredited master’s degree directly through online courses offered by Gilder Lehrman.”
But by December 2016, a number of problems with the program, including the name of the degree, prompted further action by Gilder Lehrman.
In a December 20th, 2016 letter, just four days after ASU approved the new tuition rate, Gilder Lehrman President James Basker apologized to participants for the many concerns and issues that came about as a result of the confusing transition that the ASU-GLI partnership underwent.
Acknowledging concerns regarding poor communication, errors in ASU’s registration systems, and application processes, Basker said these issues “were dictated to [Gilder Lehrman] by the leadership of Adams State University — they were and are all beyond our control.”
President Basker went on to state that “[t]he only alternative we would have had was to withdraw from the program altogether, which would have left our students without the professors and courses we bring to it.”
Basker addressed confusion regarding the name of the degree, which was changed from the original ASU-GLI agreement. He said, “the change (from an ‘MA in American History’ to an ‘MA in Humanities: American History Emphasis’) was a unilateral decision made by ASU. We did not take the issue lightly and we pushed back on behalf of our students; however, we are unable to change ASU’s decision.”
Basker detailed ASU’s faulty course registration system specifically: “This process is handled entirely by ASU. Links and instructions were not provided to GLI until the morning of Monday 12/12, despite earlier messages from ASU that the links might be open the previous week. The delay was unfortunate and we shared the registration information as soon as we received it from ASU.”
Basker continued, “Another issue with registration was due to an internal error with ASU’s system. Apparently, some students were able to access an unofficial point of entry into the registration system over the weekend prior to 12/12. We regret this happened and as soon as we learned of the situation, we notified ASU and they sent official instructions to launch registration for all students.”
ASU RESPONDS TO CONCERNS IDENTIFIED BY GLI
In response, ASU published an undated letter (without ASU letterhead) that further addressed these concerns. The letter was written by Dr. Penny Sanders, ASU’s new Assistant Vice President of Graduate Studies. This letter was also included on the Gilder Lehrman website on a Frequently Asked Questions page.
The letter states: “Many of the issues with the spring 2017 registration process were due to new system changes at Adams State. We have addressed these issues and will make every effort to provide better information and instructions for the process including what students need to do to get on a course waiting list, beginning with the summer 2017 term.”
Dr. Sanders addressed the lack of clarity between the previous agreement for a Master’s in History, not an MA in Humanities with a U.S. History emphasis. She said, “However, the initial agreement Adams State made with GLI in 2014 was for a Master’s in History. Because the degree was approved through the state of Colorado and the Higher Learning Commission as an M.A. in Humanities with an emphasis in U. S. History, the M.A. in History did not come into being. We are aware that this caused confusion.”
STRUCTURAL DISORGANIZATION, ADDITIONAL COMPENSATION
One ASU employee also questioned the supervision of this program under Dr. Crowther, HAPPS chair, rather than Dr. Sanders, the Assistant Vice-President of Graduate Studies. The employee stated, “Ed will never let it go.”
Another ASU employee said, “Of course Ed Crowther is one of the biggest beneficiaries of this program, financially speaking.”
A recent Watching Adams investigation found that Dr. Crowther increased his 2013 salary by 123% from additional fee-for-service arrangements, including online instruction and various managerial roles. By 2016, Dr. Crowther’s compensation totaled $157,969 from 14 line items on his salary sheet.
In addition to his coursework, Dr. Crowther serves as a double department chair while also presiding over the Faculty Senate, a combination of administrative duties that many have cited as a violation of shared governance principles.
This apparent disorganization and substantial remuneration by some senior faculty continues despite recent statements, including by ASU President Beverlee McClure, to “right size” the university’s management structure.
One former ASU employee also noted, “The solution to the HLC pressure was moving everything into the HAPPS office. Last December, Eileen Tilton (HAPPS administrative assistant) could hardly look up from her desk with all the paperwork she was processing for GLI. She said that she had hundreds of files to process. This, of course, on top of her typical duties, which she struggled to keep up with already. In theory, Eileen serves three departments but in practice she serves only one: HAPPS. I can’t imagine her new duties with GLI improved this balance. This is a classic ASU move: Don’t abide, hide.”
VIOLATIONS WITH HIGHER LEARNING COMMISSION RECOMMENDATIONS
ASU’s partnership with Gilder Lehrman had previously been operated under ASU Extended Studies. However, since the institution was placed on academic probation by the Higher Learning Commission in February 2016, ASU has been restructuring and integrating ES offerings into the main campus offerings as much as possible.
In her response letter, Dr. Sanders assured students, “We are addressing the issues of the probation and feel very confident that our accreditation will be fully restored. In the very unlikely case that we lose our accreditation, ASU is obligated to support the transition of all students to another accredited institution, so current students can rest assured they will be fine either way.”
One former ASU employee observed, “They’d love everyone to believe everything is all better now with respect to Extended Studies, but the problems are still there, right to this current semester.”
Another ASU employee said, “The partnership between the Adams State and Gilder Lehrman has always raised eyebrows and questions. How is it legal and ethical to use GLI online offerings and label them ASU graduate credit?”
The ASU employee continued, “One of the concerns Dr. Sanders addressed in her letter to GLI participants was the change in degree name in order to comply with the state of Colorado and HLC standards. However, there was no mention regarding the period of time required to complete a course.”
As noted previously, GLI is advertising that “Students must complete 30 credits to earn the degree, but may take as long to complete them as they wish” [emphasis added].
The issue of open enrollment with for-credit coursework was a major concern raised by the HLC. In its March 2016 letter, the HLC identified open enrollment standards for online, semester-based coursework as among the reasons ASU was placed on probation. The letter states, “The Advisory Team’s review of over 60 Extended Studies courses found a lack of interaction or set due dates for their online courses and no visible student-instructor interaction in numerous semester-based courses.”
An external investigation by Dr. David Mathieu in August 2016 identified the same problem, stating, “The continued use of Open Enrollment courses has additionally encouraged abuse of academic integrity, student engagement, and the maintenance of academic standards.”
The Mathieu Report recommended that ASU “End the existence of and access to open enrollment, credit-bearing, degree program eligible courses as soon as possible. The academic integrity and reputation of the University should not be compromised further.”
Based on these findings, it would appear that ASU’s GLI coursework is in violation of the HLC’s standards and of the Mathieu Report’s recommendations for online coursework.
AN ACCREDITATION SHELL GAME
GLI offers video lectures, presented by notable professionals in the field of History, for teachers to watch at their own pace for professional development hours required of all teachers. Under this model, teachers can enroll with ASU, apply and receive Federal Financial Aid, watch those same videos and qualify for graduate credit hours.
Though GLI is a reputable national institute that offers professional development opportunities for teachers, it is not an accredited institution for higher education. Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition offers conferences, fellowship opportunities, and professional development workshops for middle and high school teachers. Nowhere do they offer a Master’s program through GLI.
But by hiring online adjuncts with PhD’s, ASU may be hoping that the HLC will not question the credentials of this MA in Humanities with an emphasis in U.S. History, formerly known as an MA in American History.
One observer noted, “Essentially, ASU is playing a shell game with its accreditor. By running non-accredited, open enrollment coursework through a degree program, ASU is sweeping academic standards under the rug and hoping the HLC doesn’t notice. Are these short-term profits worth the long-term risk to ASU’s already tarnished academic reputation?”