Do Corporate-Style NDAs Have a Place in Higher Ed?

The Chronicle of Higher Education | September 6, 2018 - I'm Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education covering innovation in and around academe. Subscribe here. Here's what's on my mind this week:

Do corporate-style NDAs have a place in higher ed?

The broad nondisclosure agreement Purdue University Global requires its faculty members to sign has been nagging at me since I first reported on it a couple weeks ago. The more I’ve talked to people about it, the more it seems at odds with the values of higher education and the traditional role of faculty members — even recognizing how businesslike the enterprise has become.

Even if the policy is an anomaly — and despite assertions from Purdue Global, it looks like it is — I wonder whether it’s yet another harbinger of the rising corporatization of the sector.

Purdue Global makes no bones about the purpose of the NDA. The policy states that the nonprofit university created when Purdue University acquired the for-profit Kaplan University “is engaged in the highly competitive business” of providing students with educational services and materials.

The NDA prohibits faculty members from sharing confidential information “that does or may have economic value,” including nonpublic information about course materials and methods of instruction, plus dozens of other categories of information. I had hoped Purdue Global’s chancellor, Betty Vandenbosch, would talk to me about it, but she was traveling and unavailable when I reached out. My invitation stands open.

The NDA is not the only recently revealed policy of the institution that has been raising questions. Purdue Global also appears to be ceding unusual control over its admissions policies to Kaplan Inc., the ex-parent company of Kaplan University that now handles marketing, technology, and other services for the online programs. And Purdue Global is continuing the Kaplan University practice of forced arbitration — requiring students to waive their rights to sue the institution in the event of disputes, a practice that few other nonprofits follow. Those findings, along with others, were made public by the Century Foundation, an organization that previously challenged Purdue’s purchase of Kaplan.

The American Association of University Professors and its Indiana chapter, which first publicized the “gag clause,” aren’t letting the issues go. They’ve created an online petition urging Purdue Global to scrap the NDA and the forced arbitration. They are also using the petition to find out if people have encountered nondisclosure agreements at other institutions.

I’ve been curious too. Besides the institutions with big online operations that I mentioned in my original story (Arizona State and Southern New Hampshire Universities, and the for-profit American Public University System) I’ve since learned that institutions owned by Adtalem Global Education — like DeVry University — don’t use them either. Ditto for another nonprofit, National University.

Wallace Boston, chief executive at American Public, said he found the idea of an NDA “sort of awful.” If anything, he told me, “I want my faculty members to talk about their courses. That’s how the courses get better.”

Colorado State University-Global Campus does have its faculty and staff members sign a confidentiality policy, but Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of the institution, considers the policy less restrictive than Purdue Global’s because it doesn’t enumerate all the categories of potentially confidential material and it’s the same document every state employee signs.

Takeda-Tinker also sees the NDA as contrary to a strength of higher education, one that she had a hard time appreciating at first as an entrepreneur-turned-college-president: “In higher education, there is this collegiality, this sharing.” And she dismisses the premise — the competition factor — that underlies the NDA. “Oh my gosh, there are plenty of students,” she said. My spin detector goes off whenever I hear a college president poo-poo concern for market share; despite that, her observations seem right on the mark.

Mine was by no means an exhaustive survey, but when I checked in with Jill Buban, senior director of research and innovation at the Online Learning Consortium, the major national organization for distance educators, she told me she had never heard of such clauses at other institutions. Like me, she assumed that Purdue Global has the policy because it employs many adjunct faculty members who also teach at other colleges.

Still, Buban said the policy seemed in conflict with academic freedom and the very activities associations like hers seek to promote: the sharing of best practices. If a college is doing something well, “it’s really a disgrace to the field that we can’t learn about it,” Buban told me.

As it happens, Kaplan educators have spoken at consortium meetings in the past, while the NDA was in effect there. So (as one of its professors told me) the NDA doesn’t actually prevent them from sharing good teaching practices with their colleagues. But that doesn’t take into account how such policies make faculty members feel about their own professionalism. And groups like the consortium don’t routinely ask potential presenters: What information aren’t you sharing with us because your employer considers that bit confidential? Are faculty restricted from sharing negative outcomes because they’re not good for marketing purposes?

Ok, maybe that’s not the biggest worry in the world. After all, we’re not talking drug trials. Still, on principle, it should matter.

And maybe in the future it will. Purdue Global’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, was already planning to send over a review team this month as part of the change-of-control approval it received earlier this year when the university moved from Kaplan Inc. to Purdue. All of the policies that have raised questions fall within the commission’s purview, and the commission’s liaison to the reviewer has highlighted them to that team.

What I did this summer.

Well, this, actually. In mid-June we revamped the Re:Learning newsletter to focus on innovation in and around academe. I've reported and written a dozen newsletters since then and shared insights on a variety of topics: how online education is misunderstood, the importance of internships for low-income students, the needs of adult students, the value of peers in college advising, and several takes on ways colleges and others are responding to the needs of employers. I’ve thrown in a dose of politics — and Trump, too.

Your responses — to my specific questions and in general — have been gratifying and informative. (FWIW, items concerning online education and internships seem to have inspired the most reaction.) But what else would you like to read about? Are there topics or people I should be looking into? Big trends that I’ve overlooked? I’d love to hear from you.

Got a tip you'd like to share or a question you'd like me to answer? Let me know at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here.

SOURCE: The Chronicle of Higher Education