Queen’s Secret “Business Case” for Online Learning: Questions for the Provost (13 March 2012)

As submitted to the Senate Agenda Committee by Mark Jones, Faculty Senator for Arts and Science, on 13 March 2012, for Question Period in the 27 March meeting of Senate. [Update: The Agenda Committee declined to include these questions on the Senate agenda. No reason for the exclusion was given, nor has the Provost answered either question. See also the Queen’s Journal, 23 March 2012.]

Questions for the Provost concerning Queen’s development of online courses, programs, degrees, and certificates:  especially concerning Queen’s development of a “Business Case for the expansion of Continuing and Distance Studies” and simultaneous exclusion of the subject of online learning from the “Queen’s University Academic Plan 2011.”

Queen’s University Budget Report, 2011-12 reports that “As part of its planning exercises (in the face of the need to balance the budget), Queen’s has been exploring various revenue-generating ideas,” including “the feasibility of offering Queen’s degrees and certificates through distance on-line learning.”   To this end, the Budget Report continues, “In the coming year, business cases for a number of such initiatives will be generated” (p. 7).  According to the Queen’s magazine OnQ, by February or March of 2011 (and perhaps earlier) Provost Silverman had “granted funding to Arts and Science to develop a business case for the expansion of Continuing and Distance Studies,” to “be presented in June” (OnQ, Mar. 2011, p. 8).  When I requested access to it in July 2011, I was informed by Associate Dean Brenda Ravenscroft that it had not been completed (personal email, 9 July 2011).  When I requested it later, I was told it had been “completed right at the end of the summer and given to the Provost, who now has ownership of the document” (personal email, 4 January 2012).  When I asked Provost Harrison to see it on 24 Feb. 2012, he responded (after two weeks and a second request) that “we have not yet made public any reports on this issue” (personal email, 9 March 2012).

This situation presents two questions.

The first is concerning the fact, not only that Queen’s developed its “business case” for offering degrees and certificates online as a “revenue-generating idea” before it had even completed its Academic Plan (which was first assembled as a whole in September and approved on 22 November 2011)—but that having completed this “business case,” it then excluded consideration of online learning entirely from its “Academic Plan.”  As an APTF member, I personally researched and drafted a detailed section on this subject for the Academic Plan, titled “On Virtualization, Blended Learning, On-line Learning, and the ‘Greater Differentiation’ of Ontario Universities.”  I submitted this draft to the APTF (and sent it to all Senators) when I departed, belatedly, for sabbatical on 25 July 2011.  But this draft section was excluded from the plan as assembled by the APTF in September, for reasons that were never stated.  Being on sabbatical by this time, I was no longer active on the APTF and was not privy to its considerations, but it is at least possible that it was rejected because it does not support, and in fact argues against, the development of blended and online learning as a “revenue-generating idea.”   In November 2009, the Principal announced the Academic Planning process in the following terms:

The academic planning process that we will be embarking on in the new year will help us prioritize what we do and how we do it. I think it’s very important that our academic values drive our financial decisions, including capital planning, budgets and human resources strategies. (Daniel Woolf, “Financial Update”)

If it is indeed “important that our academic values drive our financial decisions” (and I could not agree more), then is it not backward for Queen’s to have a “business case” for online etc. as a “revenue-generating idea” before having completed its academic planning around this issue?  I therefore request that the Provost inform Senate of what the “business case” is and says, and of how the Administration now intends to make “our academic values drive our financial decisions” in this hugely important matter.

My second question is about the “ownership” of a planning document such as the “business case for expansion of CDS.”  Should such planning documents be kept private, in the “ownership” of the Provost, and refused to Queen’s Senators, or indeed to any faculty, who request and have good reason to wish to see them?  And will the Provost clarify when this document was completed and make it available to Senate?

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