Johnstown officials defend deal with Outlier


Outlier, the for-profit company that offers online college courses, continues to be a subject of debate and disagreement on the Oakland campus a year after Pitt-Johnstown signed a five-year contract with the company.

A report by a subcommittee of the Budget Policies committee — which stated that “guidelines for the review of academic planning proposals require new credit-bearing courses to be created as part of existing academic programs, which was not followed in this case” — led to a spirited defense of the deal by Johnstown campus officials at the full committee’s most recent meeting and to a chastising of the subcommittee by University Senate officers at the Nov. 3 Faculty Assembly meeting for circumnavigating regular Senate procedures.

Outlier courses are taught by professors outside of Pitt, but students receive transferrable Pitt credits. The courses typically cost around $400. The Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences first piloted classes from Outlier with courses on the Oakland campus in psychology and math. After the trial, these departments made it clear they weren’t interested in partnering with Outlier. At Pitt–Johnstown, Outlier offers Calculus I and Introduction to Psychology, Astronomy and Statistics courses.

While faculty in the psychology department in Pittsburgh said they were never consulted about bringing in Outlier, Jem Spectar, president of Pitt–Johnstown, said there were multiple discussions on that campus including an extensive town hall with faculty. He said it was stressed that faculty oversight of the Outlier courses was paramount.

“The faculty, if they did not feel comfortable with the quality of the courses or had any questions, they could pull the plug,” Spectar said. “We have no illusions about partnering with for-profit entities. We understand that they have their interest, but we were very focused on issues of quality control and faculty governance over the courses.”

He said they took the proposal to the school’s Division of Business, “and had they said, ‘No way, this is not going to happen, we disapprove,’ it would have died right there.”

Janet Grady, UPJ vice president for academic affairs and a professor of nursing, said the school did not consider the Outlier offerings to be a new program, but instead a collection of courses, so they wouldn’t fall under the same rules for creating new programs. For instance, she said, the psychology course is “a basic 101 intro to psych that is designed to be transferable to a number of institutions.”

“They weren't designed to be taken together as a program, so we did not consider it a program” Grady said. “We follow the same process you do. I've been a member of PACUP (Provost's Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Programs) for quite a while. We follow the same process across the University for approving a program. These are not programs, they are individual courses.”

She said she was satisfied that there was going to be a review process that included UPJ faculty, who would look at the courses and offer some recommendations. “The courses have been massaged and revised to reflect the input of our faculty,” she said.

Patty Wharton-Michael, UPJ Faculty Senate president, said the number one concern of faculty was the rigor of the courses and having the oversight, “and that was something that we were assured of. … We felt confident that we could keep that oversight and make certain that the rigor was there.”

In answer to a question about why these courses didn’t go through the normal course development process, Grady said, “My opinion … is that these aren't newly developed courses that need development. We still have our policy for courses that are developed on campus by our faculty. They all go through that same process. But these are more, in my mind, similar to existing courses that were already developed, and they were developed in collaboration with experts in these areas.”

The other consideration, Spectar said, was giving access to students who can’t afford a Pitt education. He said they worried about cannibalizing from their already depleted student enrollment with these courses, but, “The general sense that we came away with, after many discussions on that issue, was that the type of students who would pursue credits through Outlier was not likely to be the typical Pitt student.”

Grady said Outlier is not marketing these classes to Pitt–Johnstown students. “I saw the list … of where these students are located, and they are all over the country and all over the world. And a lot of them are in places like rural Alabama, where they wouldn’t even know Pitt. Maybe an offshoot of this might be that if they take the courses that have Pitt credit, we might then be able to recruit some of them.”

Senate procedures

At the Budget Policies committee meeting, Senate President Robin Kear said that she had taken the report to the Educational Policies committee, which seemed like a more appropriate venue to discuss quality of educational programs at the University. That committee did not take a vote to endorse the report and basically said it was not within their mission to act on since these courses don't rise to the level of programs. The committee did say it would keep an eye on how the Outlier deal proceeds.

Then at Faculty Assembly this week, after Tyler Bickford, Budget Policies committee chair, presented a summary of the subcommittee report on Outlier, Kris Kanthak, Senate vice president, gave a strongly worded rebuff from the Senate officers to the subcommittee — not on the content of its report, “but rather procedural issues surrounding the report that we think are incredibly important to the continuation of the University Senate and the Faculty Assembly.”

The very thorough report fails to mention any of the previous actions of the Faculty Assembly, Kanthak said. Late last year, then-Senate President Chris Bonneau looked into questions surrounding Outlier at Johnstown and found that “the evidence indicated that the principles of shared governance were met via the Pitt–Johnstown assembly.”

Bonneau’s report to Faculty Assembly in December 2020 concluded: “If the Johnstown faculty wish to be involved (with Outlier), that is their choice, though it is not the choice I would make. If they develop objections to this arrangement, then the Senate should definitely become involved.” He also emailed a follow-up report to answer some questions raised about Outlier to all Faculty Assembly members later in December, which still concluded shared governance principles were met. The matter seemed to be closed at that point, Kanthak said.

“A month later, in direct contravention of that previous public Faculty Assembly statement, a subset of the Budget Policies committee members decided to begin an investigation,” Kanthak said. “That investigation included contacting witnesses and demanding their participation in that investigation under the guise that the investigation was part of their roles as members of the Faculty Assembly and that the witnesses’ participation in the investigation was part of their obligations under shared governance.”

Bickford noted that it was not a “subset” of the Budget Policies committee that decided to begin an investigation, but the full committee voted to form a subcommittee. “That’s a normal and legitimate process,” he said.

He also said that the subcommittee also never asked for interviews "under the guise that the investigation was part of their roles as members of the Faculty Assembly.” Bickford is actually the only committee member who is also a member of Faculty Assembly. “We requested interviews in our role as members of the SBPC, and we clearly communicated to everyone that the SBPC had created a subcommittee to look into specific issues.” 

Kanthak in her Faculty Assembly remarks said: “Of course, the president of the University Senate does not have the authority to unilaterally declare an issue closed. If, however, the president of the University Senate has set forth the plan of action, has informed members of the Faculty Assembly of that plan and has recorded that plan as part of our public meeting minutes, our partners in shared governance must be able to count on that being the plan.”

If people had concerns about that plan, the proper place to air them was at Faculty Assembly, she said. “We keep minutes of our meetings so that we and others have a record of what we did.

“Once we as a body, through our elected representatives have set forth a plan, we cannot permit a subset of our membership to circumvent that process and carry out their own investigation,” she said.

The Budget Policies committee argues that it has jurisdiction over all processes covered under the University's planning and budget system, Kanthak said, including, in this case, academic programs. “Of course, every action the University takes is part of the planning and budget system. If all of those actions are the purview of the Budget Policies committee, there's nothing left for any other committee to do.”

She reiterated what Kear had said: that this issue is rightfully under the purview of the Educational Policies committee.

“In short, our shared governance process works for two reasons,” Kanthak said. “First, we have a robust committee system to divide the labor, and second, we have an elected executive council to help facilitate bringing together the fruits of that labor to help determine a faculty position on matters that are important to our community. The conduct of this investigation represents a threat to that process and the concept of shared governance itself. The executive committee of the Senate does not support this report and urges the Faculty Assembly membership to do the same.”

Bickford defended the subcommittee’s process and said he felt they had “stayed in our lane.” He said that at the February meeting of the Budget Policies committee, Bonneau said “he looked into this briefly and that it is fair to see if proper policies were followed. But he is less concerned with outcome and would encourage focus on process, which I think is actually what we did. So I feel pretty confident that the process was appropriate.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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