Bgervais [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

October 24, 2019; Chronicle of Higher Education

A third of all college students now take at least one online course. In an era of falling enrollment nationally, online learning is one of the few growth sectors in higher education. While it has only been a couple of decades for computer-driven courses, distance learning—which was once called correspondence coursework—is as old as the post office. Now, one of the largest providers of online education, focusing on adult learners and veterans, is restructuring, which in turn is threatening the faculty.

University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), which was known as University of Maryland University College before July 1st of this year, has informed over 100 employees that their current contract will be terminated January 4th. If they choose to, they can reapply.

Speaking of the transition, Peter Smith, the campus’s interim chief academic officer, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Any way you go, it’s going to be tough. It is a big change. But you can’t do it incrementally.”

Smith believes they must change to prepare for the needs of employers and adult students in the 21st century. “Most colleges wait until they’re really in the soup,” Smith added. “We’re not even close to the soup.”

The University of Maryland Global Campus is one of only a handful of public or nonprofit schools specifically structured for working adults rather than 18-year-olds right from high school. (Another is the 50-year-old State University of New York’s Empire State College.) Founded in 1947 as the College of Special and Continuation Studies branch of the University of Maryland, it was the first university to send faculty to military posts in Europe. The school serves tens of thousands, and there appear to be some growing pains.

The teaching shifts come from replacing the Undergraduate and Graduate Schools with three new schools centered on disciplines—the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Business, and the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology. Classes and academic programs won’t be eliminated—they’ll be absorbed by the new discipline-guided schools—but teaching contracts in both the Undergraduate and Graduate schools will be terminated, because those schools will be gone next year.

The teachers had until October 10th to reapply, either for the same job in the new school or for different positions. There will be at least an additional 25 teaching slots. The majority of instructors are adjuncts, most with annual salaries under their contracts.

The administration is also facing reorganization. Bob Ludwig, assistant vice president for media relations, said 27 program chairs will also be cut to eliminate redundancy. Javier Miyares, president of the college, says faculty members would be added in some disciplines, some job descriptions will change, and some positions will be eliminated.

“I assure you that our goal is always to treat our colleagues with respect and dignity,” Miyares says. There will be paid leave, depending on length of employment, for those who do not apply or are not rehired.

The college is stretching, and one professor says it has moved from a small “mom-and-pop” in the direction of a giant for-profit model. The college looked into shedding public university status five years ago, they argued, in order to have greater flexibility with partnerships, such as with software vendors. They must compete with private online schools for students during a time when enrollment for higher learning has dipped almost across the board.

Traditional professors are naturally concerned that teaching methods are following the money, and that may erode higher education as a whole. While the story of UMGC appears to be employees afraid for their jobs as an employer restructures, it may be a microcosm of higher education changes overall.—Marian Conway