It’s no secret that Mason, like a number of public universities, is actively partnering, or considering partnerships with, various for-profit organizations. Of course educational institutions have long done this in some nonacademic sectors, like food service, where commercial firms can arguably do a more efficient job, with more economies of scale, than the universities themselves. Even here there have been some issues, ranging from appropriate treatment of labor to adequate devotion to student wellbeing.
But the new types of partnerships, more directly within the academic domain, obviously raise other types of issues. The reasons for new interests are several. For-profit institutions may have investment capital that public universities currently lack. Of course they will want to be repaid for investment, and then some, but the infusion may help the university make gains as well. They may also have experience that universities alone cannot easily replicate: marketing online education programs may be a case in point, where single universities are often at a disadvantage simply in terms of relevant know-how, let alone the investments needed to produce real results.
The criteria to apply in considering, and then assessing, this type of partnership are probably pretty obvious. First, of course, does the university as well as the partner benefit financially; the arrangement surely must generate mutual advantages, and there must be clear ways to terminate a relationship if the mutual calculations do not pay off over a reasonable period of time. Second, does the university, and its faculty and administration, retain real control over the academic features of the collaboration. I believe some current arrangements, though founded on university academic control in principle, may in fact see the commercial partner intruding on the academic space; real care is essential. Third – and this relates to academic control – are the arrangements in the interests of students, and can they be assessed in terms of favorable student outcomes. And fourth – and this can be a dicey area as well – are working conditions, even if not always exactly standard, satisfactory.
In many cases I think the criteria can be met, and I am convinced that the new partnerships will prove essential to many public universities going forward. I would not have imagined this a decade ago, but changes in the fiscal framework, in global relationships, and in educational technology have certainly combined to change the situation in my view. But I recognize as well that partnerships will raise concerns, and that new sets of issues must be addressed head-on. Transparency (admittedly, an overused word) is essential: those involved in contemplating and negotiating new arrangements must keep the university informed at every major step. Even when a deal is clearly beneficial, springing on the world at the last minute is a recipe for failure. Again, there are challenges here, but I think they can be addressed. And I think the benefits of openness to some of these new opportunities can be quite real, not just financially but in terms of learning new approaches to the education of the future.