When a university president is also a technology entrepreneur

Adrian College President Jeff Docking has innovative ideas for higher education leaders battling enrollment pressures and market forces. Among them: Rize Education, a for-profit course-sharing company that Docking co-founded and incubated at Adrian’s campus outside of Detroit, which develops and teaches online courses through its platform.

Rize was founded in 2019 and Adrian started using the platform the following year. This allowed the college to create new majors, which in turn attracted students and revenue. Mooring says Inside Higher Education such efforts are a necessary innovation for higher education, providing cash-strapped institutions with an affordable way to add flexible online curricula and programs in an effort to recruit students.

His dual role as president of Adrian and co-owner of Rize Education, however, has raised questions about a potential conflict of interest as the use of the platform expands. Some faculty members worry that Rize will slip into the college’s general education classes and worry that it will threaten their jobs; Docking denies any potential conflict of interest.

Mooring experiences

To understand Adrian College today, it helps to go back to 2005, when Docking became president of an institution he described as struggling and rudderless at the time. Federal data shows Adrian enrolled nearly 1,200 students in 2001, but that number had fallen to less than 1,000 by the time Docking arrived.

“In 2005, we went down to about 840 students; we were hemorrhaging money at the time — about $1-3 million a year with no real plan to increase enrollment and lots of deferred maintenance,” Docking said..

The new president, who had previously served as a trustee at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, quickly hatched a plan that involved investing heavily in athletics to attract students. Docking told Adrian’s board that his proposal would require a $30 million investment; he asked the college to borrow $15 million and promised to raise the rest.

“I set up a model to quickly increase enrollment, and we did that. We basically doubled enrollment over five to six years, basically by leveraging extracurricular activities,” he said. he declares.

A scan of Adrian’s athletics website reveals a slew of sports offerings, including traditional programs like soccer and basketball, as well as less mainstream but cheaper sports like cornhole and synchronized figure skating , as well as emerging programs in areas like esports.

Some faculty members said the experience generated excitement and increased income, although both have declined in recent years.

“He was a good role model. It worked. He just ran out of cheap sports. Then he kept trying and brought in some expensive sports. And I think maybe it didn’t work out so well. He did everything he could with it and I think he may have gone a bit too far, but it worked, at least initially,” said a faculty member who requested the anonymity for fear of reprisals by Docking.

(Docking disputes the idea that he has retaliated or will retaliate against critics on campus. The anonymous professor said the president did just that in a previous firing attempt that was only overturned after alumni pressured the university to retain threatened positions in the humanities.)

New sports programs weren’t the only Docking innovation supporting Adrian. Data available on the website shows that, unlike most liberal arts colleges, Adrian’s enrollment has skyrocketed from less than 1,000 students in 2005 to around 1,900 today. Docking attributes this growth in large part to the role Rize Education has played in allowing the college to add majors and recruit students.

Over the past two years, Adrian has added a total of 17 programs through Rize – a mix of majors, minors, and certificates.

“The way Rize works at Adrian College is that we offer some majors that we don’t exclusively offer in-house, for example, supply chain management,” explained Tony Coumoundouros, a faculty member. of Adrian who served as the faculty president when the college was established. in partnership with Rize Education. “Students who want to specialize in supply chain management take most of their business courses in-house, face-to-face, at Adrian College, and then they take online courses specific to supply chain management. the supply chain of an institution that is in the Rize Group.

These additional programs boosted student recruitment and ultimately financial results.

“We now have about 110 students here at the college that we wouldn’t have had without this major news. That translates to about $8 million,” Docking said.

The potential of Rize Education has been recognized by many colleges, as well as by The New York Times, which last year featured a glowing article detailing how liberal arts institutions have partnered with the course-sharing platform to expand their offerings.

But even as more students enroll at Adrian, questions have emerged about whether Docking should remain at the helm of Rize Education.

The issue of conflict

As for dollars and cents, Docking said he had “never asked for a penny” from Rize Education, noting that he received no monthly salary or compensation from the company.

But some faculty members and former Adrian employees see things differently. A former faculty member said The Detroit Free Press that she resigned because of Docking’s potential conflict of interest, arguing that he is hurting the faculty by using Adrian as a launching pad for Rize. According to federal data, Adrian listed 97 full-time instructors in 2019, but that number had dropped to 85 in 2021. Fewer faculty members mean more courses and revenue for Rize Education, the argument goes. The anonymous faculty member thinks Adrian’s partnership with the lesson-sharing platform went too far when he started offering general education courses through Rize.

Critics also worry that students in residence may find it difficult to adapt to the online courses offered by Rize, especially those in general education, which they used to take in person on campus.

“If you put a bunch of 17- and 18-year-old freshmen in an online course, there’s not as much supervision, not as much interaction. Some take over, but some of them get lost in these courses. It’s hard to imagine a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds succeeding in this place,” said the faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that winning a major through the platform felt more like attend a larger online university than a smaller liberal arts college.

Coumoundouros disputes the idea that Rize Education undermines the value of an on-campus experience at Adrian College, arguing that students still take most of their classes in person. He also said he saw no evidence that Adrian is using Rize Education as a way to suppress faculty.

“I think it helps the college stay in a position where they are competitive,” Coumoundouros said.

The docking suggests that faculty concerns are tied to something else: fear of change.

“The biggest hurdle, I think, is that it represents change, and change for institutions that have been around for sometimes over 200 years is very difficult,” Docking said, comparing higher education today to failed video rental channel Blockbuster, which was being disrupted by streaming.

And Docking believes innovations such as course sharing are needed to keep struggling institutions afloat, lest they follow Blockbuster’s path as students pursue higher education on their terms.

“Small private liberal arts colleges aren’t for everyone, but they work great for kids who need them. And the idea that those places would disappear, because we wouldn’t be willing to innovate, or just want to do things the way we always have, that’s not acceptable,” Docking said.

But does being the president of a college that increasingly relies on a platform he co-owns represent a conflict of interest even if the dollars aren’t going to Docking? Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, answers with a resounding yes, saying Docking has competing interests in Adrian and Rize.

“I think if a president owns an education business or is invested, he can’t continue to operate it and function as the chief executive of the university. I think there is an inherent conflict of interest,” Heider said. “I know the president said the company doesn’t make him any money, but that doesn’t matter – he still represents two things, which is a private company and a private university. And that’s always going to be in conflict. The only way for him to avoid it, in my opinion as an ethicist, is to either sell his stake in the company or put it in a blind trust so he doesn’t know how it happens financially and he has no control over it. Then he can just concentrate on the task at hand, which is running the university.

There is also the possibility of a commitment conflict. Since the role of a college president is demanding, Heider said it would be difficult to manage the affairs of a full-time college while working to build a growing company like Rize Education.

“How can you have shared interests in running a business, or at least advising a business and running a university? I think it’s problematic because you get paid to be the president of the university. It’s not a part-time job, and it’s probably not an 8-to-5, Monday-Friday job,” Heider said.

Heider also raises ethical concerns about how Adrian College might set up Rize Education for future success, which might not earn Docking a paycheck now, but will in years to come.

“Part of the problem with a for-profit business is that it might not be the value you get from a business today, but it might be the value you get five years or 10 years from now. and the decisions you make for college can imply that this endeavor can benefit you in the future,” Heider said.

For its part, Docking argues that neither counsel nor college administrators have raised concerns about its dual role. And despite the criticism, he does not intend to go anywhere.

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