Today marks the start of the Winter Olympics. It’s also the 20th anniversary of the biggest scandal in Winter Olympics history. 20 years ago, the Canadian figure skating pairs team of Jame Salé and David Pelletier skated a flawless and adorable long program to the music of the film Love Story. Everyone in the building was convinced Salé and Pelletier had won the gold medal – everyone except 5 of the 9 judges who decided the Russian pair had the better routine despite an obvious slip. I have a vivid memory of watching the event and feeling so discombobulated by anti-Canadian prejudice that I called my very Canadian mother who was even more upset.
The scandal is the subject of the documentary Meddling on the Peacock streaming service. In the days following the competition, newspapers ran headlines like “Robbed” and “Sham” and Jay Leno sent his private plane to fly Salé and Pelletier to L.A. to appear on the Tonight Show. In an attempt to stem the controversy and refocus attention on remaining events, the IOC ordered the International Skating Union to award them a second gold medal.
What happened here? Meddling explores the figure skating phenomenon of block judging where judges made implicit deals to help each other’s skaters, and which became prevalent following dissolution of the Soviet Union (many panels would have multiple judges from former Soviet republics). The head of the French skating federation pressured French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne to vote for the Russians because he needed former Soviet judges in the subsequent ice dancing competition to support the French team (one of whom was Russian born, but skating for France). The whole fiasco, it turns out, was arranged by a Russian mobster.
Although the French judge’s public statements denied any impropriety, two sets of witnesses recount her contemporaneous confession to voting for the Russian pair due to pressure from her superior. So the most amazing thing about Meddling is that Marie-Reine Le Gougne shows up on camera. At times despondent, at times proudly showing off her new profession (Reiki healer), and at all times extremely, outrageously French, when the producers confront her about what actually happened, she first comments how she can’t stand living in a world with so much dishonesty, and then says the following:
Maybe. Maybe I am. Maybe and probably, but really I do not remember. It’s very confused. I’m very confused about that. My memories are very not clear. I don’t remember what I have said or what I have not said. Really.
Marie-Reine Le Gougne is far from the only hypocrite on the global scene. How about large public universities pushing “Global” online offerings? It’s a veritable Olympics of online education. There’s Purdue Global, UMass Global, University of Maryland Global, Colorado State Global, University of Memphis Global, Tennessee State Global, Washington State Global, Kansas State Global, San Diego State Global, University of West Florida Global, Northern Michigan Global, University of Illinois Chicago Global, Penn State’s World Campus, and even Georgia Military College’s Global Online College. TV ads for global campuses clog the airwaves like Salé and Pelletier did 20 years ago.
In other industries, a related product that lacks some meaningful benefits usually gets an appropriate name. I’m thinking of basic economy seats on airlines, Econo Lodge, EasyJet, the Wii Mini, and starter cell phone plans. But not public colleges and universities. When they launch a program without in-person instruction, they call it global as if to indicate world class. Well, world class is something like the Olympics we’re about to witness. In online education, when you call something global, you’re trying too hard. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Students aren’t fooled. None of the Global universities are winning the enrollment race. The two largest online universities are Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University. The two largest Global campuses – Penn State and Maryland (#7 and #11 online respectively) – have lost market share over the past few years. And although it counts for about as much as a bucket of warm spit, no Global universities appear in the top 10 of U.S. News rankings of online bachelor’s programs or MBAs.
Yet online offerings continue to be called Global. Why bother if there’s no marketing or branding benefit? The answer: plausible deniability. If it’s Global, it’s not the University itself. Purdue Global is separately accredited and only “affiliated” with Purdue. While it’s part of the “Purdue University system,” transfers from Global to Purdue University are highly limited. And although Purdue Global enrolls 44,000 students – about the same as onground enrollment at its West Lafayette campus – you wouldn’t know it from President Mitch Daniels’ public pronouncements. In interviews Daniels talks about everything except Purdue Global. Moreover, “our reason for being is the 45,000 young people who are here with us” (i.e., campus enrollment, not Global).
Plausible deniability may have made sense 20 years ago. But after every student in the country has taken courses online, and after the number of colleges and universities offering online programs has nearly doubled in two years, there’s no reason to be ashamed of online education. We’re now at the point where a statement by Northeastern’s chancellor that in-person learning is “the gold standard” can prompt an uproar. (A vice provost at University of Central Florida called that “a little regressive” and argued no course is “superior or inferior based just on modality. It's all based on design and faculty engagement.”) We’re now at the point where Nate Silver takes a beating on Twitter for suggesting that remote learning was a policy disaster on par with Iraq as parents come out of the woodwork to defend “the miracle of remote learning” (although most of the angry comments seemed to come from members of teachers unions, or from people who actually remember Iraq).
The reason for the continued blizzard of Global universities has little to do with the caliber of online courses or limitations of the medium. Universities are no longer ashamed of online education. They’re ashamed of the students who enroll. Purdue President Daniels has noted the “ stark” contrast between Purdue University and Purdue Global students. For example, 60% of Purdue Global students are over age 30, average student income at time of enrollment is under $25,000, and 55% of students didn’t have a parent attend college.
While Global universities are open enrollment, the large public universities that spawned or support Global campuses are not. San Diego State rejects 2/3 of applicants. University of Maryland and Penn State reject about half. Purdue rejects 1/3. Even schools like Memphis State and Kansas State which reject only 1 out of 10 applicants are able to avoid dealing with the least prepared and/or motivated students. Selectivity is the grease that makes the wheels go round for public four-year institutions. The many challenges of students failed by our K-12 system are outsourced to community colleges, open enrollment for-profit colleges, and now Global universities.
Conversely, many of the universities willing to forego plausible deniability are as selective online as they are on campus. 2U partners don’t require plausible deniability because – with the notable exception of USC’s school of social work (and that didn’t end well) – they largely maintain selectivity. There’s not a single Global university on 2U’s list of university partners.
Like Marie-Reine Le Gougne, using the university brand to attract online tuition revenue while maintaining plausible deniability is trying to have it both ways. And as with Marie-Reine Le Gougne, denial is no longer plausible.
For online education, it’s the end of the era of plausible deniability. Public universities may have arrived at Global by different routes (Maryland via overseas programs for the military, Purdue via its acquisition of Kaplan University, Colorado and others for plausible deniability), but those that keep skating around will continue to have their lunch eaten by bigger born-online competitors like WGU and SNHU with no need to differentiate or dissemble. Instead of playing the “are they or aren’t they” Global game, public universities must commit to online.
What does commitment to online mean? It doesn’t have to mean becoming more selective in the vein of 2U partners. It does mean stopping the charade and dramatically improving the product. Instead of running underprepared students through asynchronous, text-based courses that could possibly add up to a degree in the unlikely event students are able to hang in for years (judging by completion rates, the vast majority aren’t), schools like Purdue and UMass should be offering online postsecondary pathways they’d be proud of. This means:
In the Olympics of hypocrisy that characterize current Global university offerings, online courses have virtually none of this. The bad news: doing any of this is time consuming, resource-intensive, and margin-compressing – the higher education equivalent of a quadruple lutz. The good news: it’s much more consistent with the missions of large public universities than what they’ve been doing online (and probably what most of them have been doing onground for most students).
So let’s envision a competition for the next Olympiad: gold medal to the first Global university that proceeds down this path, no longer has the need for plausible deniability, assumes responsibility for online students, and drops Global from the brand. And the second Global university to get there? Gold medal for them as well, just like Salé and Pelletier. Give ‘em all gold medals. And if no Global university does anything to improve, we’ll blame it on the French judge.