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Online education plan has conceptual, symbolic problems

Besides the issue of scope of mission, a question of whether Louisiana resources should support somebody with questionable associations and agendas needs weighing regarding the Southern University System’s request to expand dramatically its online education offerings.

System Pres. Ronald Mason unveiled a proposed partnership involving a company called EOServe, which has assisted several other historically black universities and colleges to establish a national online presence. The idea is that Southern become a “brand” in the area of online education that could compete with for-profit providers that would provide a stream of revenue, even after EOServe takes it cut, especially important for the cash-strapped Baton Rouge campus, which declared financial exigency last month.

This has raised concerns among the Board of Regents, with Commissioner of Higher education Jim Purcell questioning the plan.
Because in large part the concept would appeal to a national audience, it would draw SUS resources into educating non-Louisianans, which Purcell said was not the main goal of higher education delivery in the state.

To some degree the problem is ameliorated by the fact that the system would charge higher out-of-state tuition to students not Louisiana residents. Still, disproportionate system resources likely would go to educating out of state students, monies drawn from taxpayers. Purcell hinted that this concern could make the Regents change the funding formula for these kinds of initiatives that presumably would not reward universities for enrolling this kind of student, as a disincentive to pursuing this kind of strategy. In turn, that could make the problem worse, as the university if it persisted would have to divert resources otherwise going to in-state students to maintain the program.

The program also presents a problem in that it would remain disconnected from any larger online education strategy in Louisiana. This space long has advocated creation of something along the lines of the Illinois Virtual Campus, where any student enrolled in an Illinois public university can take online courses eligible for credit at his home school through any other campus. Southern’s solo effort impedes this and threatens to create a balkanization and uncoordinated online education environment in the state.

And yet there is another concern with the private sector entity chosen to handle the marketing and administrative end. Formed a few years ago, EOServe’s president is Benjamin Franklin Chavis, until a few years ago known by the last name Muhammad as he had joined the racist Nation of Islam but since has left the organization.

Chavis first came to prominence as a member of the Wilmington Ten, individuals convicted for firebombing a grocery store in racially-tense Wilmington, NC in 1971. Handed the longest sentence of them, eventually under tremendous political pressure he and the others were freed in 1980 on a technicality. Over the years he popularized the bogus “environmental racism” concept, led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People briefly until the organization said he used its funds to fight a sexual harassment charge, and just days ago announced an expansion of his partnership with entertainer Russell Simmons to advise the silly Occupy Wall Street movement.

To say the least, Chavis is controversial and Southern aligning itself with such a divisive individual may not convey the best image of the seriousness of this effort nor boost citizen confidence in the effort at a time of increased skepticism in how higher education performs its job in the state. As such, the system and Regents need to reevaluate and oversee, respectively, this effort, with the latter adjusting the funding formula if necessary to ensure the accomplishment of important state goals.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for informing us on this matter.

Ronald Mason must have lost his mind.

chris ryan said...

Nice post on online education. Its really getting popular. Anyways online education going to play vital role in upcoming years.