MHEC Ruling On UMUC Program Must Be Reversed

Last October, the Maryland Higher Education Commission ruled that University of Maryland University College‘s online doctoral program in community college administration was a duplication of Morgan State‘s face-to-face program and thus a violation of civil rights protections in place for historically black colleges. As a result, UMUC is now prohibited from offering the course in Maryland, although curiously, it can offer the course in the other 49 states.

The MHEC‘s misguided ruling reflects not a bias toward Morgan State as much as it reflects the age of the members of the Commission, with the only member of the Commission younger than 45 being the student representative. The delivery system for higher education in America is being rapidly altered by existing and emerging technologies, and these changes require a modern, more nuanced way of thinking about universities, what they offer and how they serve the needs of the community. I have firsthand knowledge of this, being enrolled in UMBC’s online Instructional Systems Development program.

To anyone paying attention, it is clear that various forms of distance learning will play an increasing role in the delivery system of the nation’s colleges. As this occurs, there will necessarily be overlap with some traditional programs. However, it is a mistake to treat online courses as if they were classroom courses for the purpose of excluding them. We should be encouraging the development of parallel online courses, not shutting them down. And giving Morgan State, a university with limited online experience, two years to create something from nothing, is at best a weak nod in the direction of distance learning.

What the commissioners may not understand is that UMUC’s program isn’t competing with Morgan State’s – it’s competing with other online programs across the country. The MHEC’s decision presupposes that the market served by Morgan State, traditional students available for attendance in a classroom, is the same group of people targeted by UMUC’s online program. Clearly, this is not the case. Online learners are almost always working adults seeking to fulfill their educational requirements while maintaining job, family and other commitments (like me).

The good news is that the university system’s Board of Regents is unwilling to surrender so easily, and will ask the Commission to reconsider. From the Sun article:

“The decision completely ignores a stated priority in the 2009 Maryland State Plan for Higher Education,” wrote Board of Regents Chairman Clifford Kendall in a letter to the commission. “The State Plan supports access to degrees through online programs in order to meet ‘the needs of a largely working, adult population who require a flexible schedule.’ This decision sets a potentially debilitating precedent that will discourage universities from doing the very thing that MHEC’s state plan charges them to do.”

Demonstrating his antiquated view of the situation, MHEC Chairman Kevin O’Keefe said, “I remain convinced that this was an isolated issue.” Even more depressing is O’Keefe’s belief that there will not be a “…strong sentiment among the majority of our members that we should reconsider the issue.”

Perhaps it is asking too much of this particular group of individuals to free themselves of a lifetime of assumptions about higher education and the way this product is delivered to its market. Too often, membership on the MHEC is a reward for a career of service to the community and while this may seem noble, it deprives the commission of the benefit of fresh thinking and new ideas. It may be that the only way for Maryland to become a leader in e-Learning, m-Learning and other non-traditional delivery systems is to replace (or supplement) the existing members of the MHEC with individuals who are not so tied to the past. I just hope that by the time this happens, national leadership in higher education hasn’t fallen too far from our grasp.

3 Responses to “MHEC Ruling On UMUC Program Must Be Reversed”

  1. Kevin O'Keefe Says:

    Jamie, I appreciate the passion with which you approach this matter. I salute you for caring so intensely.

    Be assured that I and my fellow commissioners fully understand — and endorse — the trends reshaping higher education delivery, despite the fact that I am very much committed to my civic and charitable pursuits. I am well versed in multiple aspects of higher education, having served in higher education as a professional consultant, trustee, adjunct and more.

    One benefit of my superannuated state is the wisdom that sometimes accompanies it, in this instance the wisdom to recognize that few decisions are as sharply defined in black and white as you seem to suppose. In this case, both schools are right in their assertions: UMUC is right to assert its desire to expand its online curricular offerings; Morgan is right in seeking to protect its interests by appealing to the law and to Maryland Code. Deciding between two rights, deciding which right should prevail over another, well that’s the hard part, isn’t it. I don’t expect to be liked for making this decision, but I do expect to be respected for the seriousness of purpose with which we conducted our deliberation.

    • jamieumbc Says:

      Chairman O’Keefe,

      Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the hard work, dedication and commitment that you and your colleagues bring to the MHEC, and have a great deal of respect for the work that is done there. Where we part company, I suppose, is not level of respect for “the seriousness of purpose” with which the decision was reached, but the implications (both short-term and long term) of not recognizing the unique and critical nature of distance learning to the future of higher education in Maryland. In searching for a possible explanation for the Commission’s rejection of the UMUC program, I may have erred in supposing it to be generational; however, it would be a mistake to think it an attempt at humor or a show of disrespect. If I offended you in doing so, please accept my deepest apologies, as the offense was both unintentional and unwanted.

      That having been said, I sincerely hope that the Commission will take the time to reconsider their earlier decision on this matter, and perhaps allow for the possibility that with changing times have come changed interpretations of what is an appropriate course of action in this case.

      Jamie Harrison

  2. kevin o'keefe Says:

    Jamie, no offense was taken and no apology is necessary. Yes, there is frustration with MHEC’s decision short-term, I agree. But within 18 months, we will have a plan in place for this particular program to be offered online, whether by Morgan, UMUC or some other institution. 18 months may seem a long time, but it is a blink of the eye in the context of Maryland’s long history of unequal funding of its higher ed institutions. I take no joy in our decision (I wish we could satisfy everyone), but I make no apologies either. Thank you for the opportunity to explain our position and to hear yours. Stay passionate, stay involved.

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