Pittsburgh committees discuss Johnstown’s Outlier deal


The deal between Outlier, an online class provider, and Pitt–Johnstown continues to receive attention from Senate committees on the Pittsburgh campus, including a detailed report presented to the Budget Policies committee on Sept. 17.

The report by a subcommittee led by committee chair Tyler Bickford looked at whether the University’s guidelines for the review of academic planning proposals and planning and budget system have been followed.

The budget committee meeting at times became contentious between Bickford and Steve Wisniewski, vice provost for budget and analytics, who said he was not prepared to discuss Outlier and suggested approval of the report be put on hold until Joe McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, and representatives from Johnstown could be at the meeting.

The Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences first piloted classes from Outlier — a for-profit company whose classes are taught online by professors outside of Pitt — with courses on the Oakland campus in psychology and other areas. After the trial, these departments made it clear they weren’t interested in partnering with Outlier.

Pitt–Johnstown and Outlier signed a five-year agreement last year where the school will oversee the Outlier courses. So far, Outlier offers Calculus I and Introduction to Psychology, Astronomy and Statistics courses. Participants will earn transferable college credits from Pitt–Johnstown. Outlier courses typically cost $400, according to the company website.

The main finding from the subcommittee’s report was 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.”

The report also says there are several risks raised by these procedural problems: “reputational harm; misinforming students and placing unreasonable pressure on Pitt programs; accreditation; educational quality; conflicts of interest; shared governance; and unequal status of regional campus faculty.”

Jana Iverson, a psychology professor, said at the Budget Policies meeting that “It's sort of ironic that all of this started pre-COVID. Because we have all learned so much about delivery, delivering quality remote instruction over the last year and a half. And so now when I look at some of this outlier and stuff, I am even more concerned because it doesn't do any of the things that we now know are most effective in remote instruction.”

McCarthy, at a meeting Sept. 20 of the Educational Policies committee, said he had seen an earlier version of the Outlier report and found “a lot of misinformation in the document. I corrected some of it, but not all of it, and then never saw the subsequent versions.”

“The most egregious one, frankly, was with respect to how the relationship evolved from being a Dietrich (School of Arts & Sciences)-focused effort to becoming a Johnstown-focused effort,” he said. “And that was very much done in good faith. I have documentation from all of the folks in the Dietrich School that were involved, all saying that they were no longer interested in being involved before we ever invited Johnstown to take over the relationship instead. They went through their shared governance process to get that approved before they picked up the mantle.”

McCarthy said the Outlier relationship with Johnstown is “staying the course.” And he said that “faculty representatives there and all the divisions that are involved and the administration are very happy with the way that relationship is playing out.”

Bickford said at the Budget Policies meeting that the subcommittee talked to several faculty members at Pitt–Johnstown and tried several times to talk to Johnstown administrators with no luck. They did get some short answers to emailed questions.

The report states that Pitt–Johnstown faculty “were informed of the Outlier partnership and invited to at least two meetings hosted by the Pitt-Johnstown faculty senate to discuss the Outlier partnership but did not vote on the partnership or otherwise contribute to the decision. Pitt-Johnstown faculty did not have access to data from the pilot year, and they did not have access to information about the yearlong process that had taken place in the Dietrich School, in which faculty and departmental leaders deliberated and raised substantive and procedural concerns about the Outlier program.”

A letter to the University Times in January from a Johnstown professor also called into question reports that faculty are largely satisfied with the Outlier program and that faculty worked closely with Pitt–Johnstown administration in developing and bringing in the Outlier contract.

Another letter from Johnstown President Jem Spectar said in December said “Contrary to the portrayal in the University Times article, the partnership with Outlier was a product of several consultations and conversations between the administration and the faculty. Dr. Barbara Petrosky, UPJ Faculty Senate president, stated that faculty ‘strongly disagree with the erroneous assertion’ in the article, noting also that the administration and the faculty discussed the Outlier partnership ‘at length’ during Faculty Senate Council and at a Faculty Senate meeting.”

Despite Wisniewski’s request to table the report until McCarthy and Pitt–Johnstown representatives could be present, the Budget Policies approved the subcommittee’s report on Outlier and it will now move on to other committees for review.

Senate President Robin Kear told the Educational Policies committee on Sept. 22 that she believes the issue “fits squarely in Educational Policies, and I would really like your feedback on it.” The committee plans to take up the report at its meeting next month.

“I feel like telling Johnstown what to do with their curriculum is a slippery slope,” she said. “(Outlier) has moved off of the Pittsburgh campus, which is really all of our purviews. We have regional reps on the Faculty Assembly, but they have their own faculty shared governance on each campus.”

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


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