Regarding an upcoming vote about the future of Duke’s online education, some faculty members feel they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Faculty have yet to vote on whether or not Duke should offer online courses for credit, but administrators have already signed a contract to do so in the Fall. Many professors have concerns about the platform Duke has chosen—Internet education company 2U’s Semester Online—as well as a lack of communication from the administration throughout the planning process. As the Arts and Sciences Council prepares to revisit this issue Thursday, some members feel that they are in a position where they must choose between a consortium that they do not want Duke to participate in or back out of online for-credit courses completely.

Last Fall, Provost Peter Lange consulted with several faculty committees before signing a contract with 2U, which committed Duke to offering for-credit online courses along with several other universities. The website has since publicly promoted Duke as a partner, as well as a specific Duke political science course. Neither the decision to pursue online courses for credit nor the decision to sign with 2U specifically was voted on by any faculty governing body or committee.

“The fact that the contract was signed before Arts and Sciences voted on it is not a sign of transparency,” said Wahneema Lubiano, associate professor of African and African American studies. “It’s a sign that certain select individuals on committees and in the upper levels of the administration knew everything that was happening, while other members of the faculty didn’t have access to what was going on.”

The contract is contingent on whether or not Arts and Sciences Council votes to support any for-credit online courses, regardless of the platform, this Thursday, Lange said. Some faculty are still discontented, however, because a vote in support of online for-credit courses also means automatic participation in 2U Semester Online. If the faculty votes against the proposal, the University will be unable to partner with 2U or any other online education platform, pending another vote.

“People feel like they are either going along with something that narrows our options or backing out of a contract,” said Jocelyn Olcott, director of undergraduate studies for history.

Forcing the hand

Although Lange said he has the authority to enter into agreements such as this one, some faculty feel that it should have been a University-wide decision because it affects the quality of the Duke curriculum.

Arts and Sciences is not the appropriate body to determine external partnerships, said physics professor Steffan Bass, a member of the Executive Committee of Arts and Sciences Council. But with Thursday’s vote on online curricula, the council can effectively kill the University’s agreement with 2U. “Even though it’s not really [the council’s] decision, they can force the hand of the provost,” Bass said.

The University issued a press release about 2U in November, and the topic had come up in various faculty government meetings. But the official 2U partnership was not formally discussed with Arts and Sciences or Academic Council until the April 11 Arts and Sciences Council meeting. Some members of the council reported that they were taken aback by the presentation.

“There’s the perception that we faculty have not been given enough time to think this through,” ancient history professor Mary Boatwright said. “We would just like more discussion and input on the format that 2U is offering.”

Micaela Janan, director of undergraduate studies for classical studies, said the discussion about 2U has stayed mainly within small committees, but it should be open to the faculty as a whole before they make a decision.

“If we’re puzzling over facts such as why is Duke advertised on the 2U site already... then there are many more questions to answer,” she said.

‘Into the arena’

Although faculty are not necessarily opposed to online for-credit courses, many have still raised concerns about whether or not Duke should be a pioneer for elite schools in this field.

Although a handful of Duke’s peer institutions—such as Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology—have offered online courses for credit, Duke is still one of the first top colleges to pursue this type of education. Some faculty members have questioned Duke’s rationale for experimenting with this curriculum model because the format has yet to establish a reputation of success among elite schools.

“The administration at Duke has the unfortunate habit of always being in a state of panic about being in second place,” said Thomas Pfau, Alice Mary Baldwin professor of English and professor of German. “[Duke is] always overeager to jump into the arena.”

But others have said it is in Duke’s best interests to innovate in online education.

Because Duke is so young, it has the flexibility to experiment, said Emma Rasiel, associate professor of the practice of economics, who plans to teach a Semester Online course.

“We haven’t been afraid to pioneer and try to pilot new ways of teaching,” Rasiel said. “The benefit of having the pilot is we’ll have the first-mover advantage.”

At the Arts and Sciences Council meeting earlier this month, some faculty expressed concerns that the University’s potential partner schools through 2U are not of the same caliber as Duke. The partners include Boston College, Brandeis University, Emory University, Northwestern University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame and the Washington University in St. Louis.

Bass supported the decision to partner with 2U, saying that if Duke were to latch onto another top-tier school’s venture such as Harvard and MIT’s online education platform edX, it would be considered a “junior partner.” With 2U, however, Duke is a “senior partner.”

“Is the 2U consortium the best possible online consortium for Duke? Or immensely suited for Duke? No, I don’t think so,” Bass said. “It’s not the best, but it’s probably the best available.”