Alyssa Sutton

In August 2017, Eastern Oregon University requested proposals from online program management companies. Three programs submitted proposals, and two were invited to campus in October 2017 –– The Learning House and Pearson Online Learning Services. In December 2017, EOU President Tom Insko and Executive Director of Regional Outreach and Innovation David Vande Pol decided to explore their options with Pearson, and presented the idea to the Board of Trustees in February 2018.

At the time Insko said he would like the partnership to be made before the next school year, and was prepared to schedule a special meeting. However, Vice President for University Advancement Tim Seydel told The Observer on Tuesday that Insko’s and Vande Pol’s teams have decided to wait until the next school year –– fall 2018 –– to make any moves, allowing for faculty and staff to be back on campus prior to any changes.

According to Vande Pol, the reason for partnering with an online program management company is simple: to increase enrollment.

He said at the April Board of Trustees meeting that there has been a shift in demographics, and what was previously regarded as the non-traditional student has become the traditional student.

“Things are only going to get more competitive in the online space, especially for smaller universities without brand recognition,” Vande Pol said at the meeting, explaining why he believes the university should partner with an OPM.

Vande Pol worked for Pearson as the vice president of business development from 2013 to 2015 where, according to his resume, which was obtained by The Observer, he was responsible for assisting universities in selecting, designing, planning, launching and operating successful online degree programs.

In April the board had a few questions regarding Pearson, mostly about what the process would be once integration began, and why Insko had created such a short timeframe to determine if a partnership with Pearson would be beneficial for the university.

“I think we have a sense of urgency to address our enrollment issues,” Insko told the trustees at the April meeting. “The longer we wait, the more risk we have.”

But faculty members are concerned.

“It’s not clear what the contract component (with Pearson) would be,” DeAnna Timmermann, assistant professor of psychology, told The Observer Tuesday. “There’s a lack of transparency (from administration) and concrete information.”

Seydel said that administration is receiving feedback from across campus and are considering all information as they move forward.

Timmermann also said that the amount of tuition revenue that would go to Pearson is unclear.

“We have calculated in the past that it takes 20 students in a classroom to pay for the instructor,” she said, adding that professors are paid a portion of what they would be paid if their class isn’t full.

“With this OPM model, I’m not sure how you can get enough students to break even with pay, unless you are hiring people to instruct at a reduced rate,” Timmermann said. “I’ve been in meetings with Pearson and told them, ‘I don’t know how this model works.’”

She said Pearson informed her that its model called for teacher assistants to instruct courses rather than professors.

“What we do really well at Eastern is have personal relationships with our students,” Timmermann said. “I’m not sure how a model that takes the professor out of the classroom is reflective of our culture.”

She added however, that faculty don’t yet have enough information or specifics to base opinions or decisions on.

Another concern of hers is Eastern’s online students.

“From what I understand, any student who takes an online course at Eastern will (unknowingly) be paying Pearson,” said Timmermann, who pointed out that the psychology program at Eastern has been fully offered online since 2003. “We have a robust population online. In my discipline (psychology) we have full classes, we have the demand to add classes, we just don’t have the instructors. We could grow online by adding instructors rather than partnering with an OPM.”

The sentiment was echoed by her colleague Brienna Fleming, an English and writing instructor.

“That’s the first thing I noticed when I started looking into Eastern (prior to moving to La Grande),” Fleming said. “We have an online presence and online courses. If we lack anything, it’s marketing –– we need to extend our brand.”

Nicole Howard, an associate professor of history, concurred that marketing is an issue for Eastern and that an OPM model would not benefit the university. Focus on supporting and hiring faculty should be prioritized, she said.

Vande Pol told The Observer in February that Pearson would assist with marketing.

“They bring terrific marketing skills and a budget that, quite frankly, we don’t have,” Vande Pol said.

“There are a lot of committed faculty on campus,” Fleming said. “(Many) could go anywhere they wanted but think students deserve what they have to offer and choose to stay (at Eastern).”

Timmermann agrees with Howard’s assessment.

“My online students are my students,” she said. “Under an OPM model –– at least the model that has been shared with us –– they won’t be. I can see how administration is concerned about enrollment, but I would hate for (an OPM) to be the only avenue they explore.”

The Observer reached out to 13 Eastern faculty members. The majority of those who responded said they were not comfortable discussing their opinions of Pearson on the record.