“This isn’t about Jeb Bush or Randy Best,” said Rosenberg, who was selected by FIU trustees (several of them Bush appointees) as FIU’s fifth president in mid-2009. “This is about finding a way for us to build relationships that can work.”
Since leaving the Governor’s Mansion in 2007, Bush has continued the educational focus that was a hallmark of his time in office. Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education has raised millions of dollars to promote his educational philosophy across the nation, with an emphasis on items such as school-choice vouchers and online learning.
Much of that money has come from corporations that stand to profit from the legislative agenda Bush is pushing. More than 30 states have adopted at least part of his educational platform.
It was Bush who connected former FIU President Modesto “Mitch” Maidique to Academic Partnerships, said FIU provost Douglas Wartzok.
“Jeb Bush talked to President Maidique before the first contract ... an introductory sort of thing.” Wartzok said, adding Bush had suggested Maidique arrange a meeting with Best.
Still, the provost stressed, “There’s been no influence and no pressure and no interference or anything like that.”
Since then, Academic Partnerships has steadily expanded, and now holds contracts with 40 state universities around the country, including the University of West Florida. UWF signed a master’s degree in education partnership in 2011.
The first contract
FIU first signed on with Academic Partnerships in February 2009, when the company was operating under the name Higher Ed Holdings. The firm had engineered dramatic online enrollment growth through its first partnership at Lamar University in Texas, and was taking its sales pitch across the United States.
One Arkansas State University professor called the company’s arrival a “scam,” and resigned from an academic committee in protest. But just like at FIU, Arkansas State signed its contract so quickly that faculty had no real chance to stop it.
At the University of Toledo, professors raised concerns about academic quality, the sharing of tuition revenues, and Best’s educational track record.
Best, a major fundraiser for former President George W. Bush, had years earlier created a tutoring program called Voyager Expanded Learning. The company received millions in federal reading-education money under Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, but the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general later found evidence of favoritism and conflicts of interest. A federal review of Voyager’s teaching methods, meanwhile, found them to have “potentially negative effects” on students’ reading comprehension.
Toledo’s united faculty opposition persuaded administrators to abandon the proposed partnership, said Leigh Chiarelott, chairman of its department of curriculum and instruction.
“Some of our alumni said, ‘Don’t cheapen our degrees,’ ” Chiarelott said. “We just said no, and provided evidence as to why we didn’t think this was a good product for us.”
FIU math Professor Enrique Villamor was chair of the Faculty Senate’s online committee when professors discovered the 2009 contract with Best — after the deal had been signed.
The frustrated Faculty Senate, which normally approves new degree programs, passed a formal resolution demanding a faculty vote on future contracts. But administrators say FIU Global (and the existing Corporate MBA partnership) aren’t new academic programs, but expansions of approved majors; therefore, no vote is required.
“Back then, we said that it shouldn’t be done that way,” Villamor said. “But they’re coming back and doing the same thing, with the same company.”
The MBA program
FIU administrators say Academic Partnerships has delivered impressively on its Corporate MBA deal, particularly in its marketing and promotion. But university records show that the company has usually fallen short of its student-recruitment goals.
The company pledged to provide 100 students for every entering class. Out of 16 total entering classes, only once did it hit that number — 117 students in July of 2011. The three most recent classes had 67, 54, and 40 company-recruited students, respectively.
But FIU administrators remain satisfied.
“They’ve been very close,” said FIU dean Joyce Elam, who oversees online programs.
Marketing online-only degrees is labor intensive, she said, and requires fully staffed recruitment call centers, which Academic Partnerships provided.
Wartzok said the company’s recruitment totals, while below the target numbers, are still much higher than the number of students FIU attracts on its own. Academic Partnerships recruited 40 students in December, for example, while FIU recruited 17.