Dear Commons Community,
Faculty at Purdue University Global are being required to sign a nondisclosure agreement which prohibits instructors from discussing nonpublic matters about the institution, potentially including aspects of teaching like “methods of instruction” and “course materials.” The agreement is raising questions among the faculty at Purdue University as well as the AAUP. As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“Professors at Purdue University and leaders of the American Association of University Professors are questioning the expansive nondisclosure agreement that Purdue University Global is requiring its faculty members to sign. The four-page document prohibits instructors from discussing nonpublic matters about the institution, potentially including even aspects of teaching like “methods of instruction” and “course materials.”
Greg Scholtz, director of the academic-freedom, tenure, and governance department at the AAUP, called the agreement “breathtakingly inappropriate” for higher education and said it was unlike anything he had ever seen in his work, which is focused on nonprofit institutions. The nondisclosure agreement also includes a one-year non-compete clause similar to those used in private industry. Among other restrictions, it prohibits instructors from inducing anyone known to have confidential information to leave Purdue Global or work for a competitor.
Purdue Global is the name Purdue University gave to the for-profit Kaplan University after acquiring it this year and reconstituting it as an entity it calls a “public nonprofit university.”
Chancellor Betty Vandenbosch of Purdue Global said in a written statement to The Chronicle that the terms of the agreement had been in place for at least 10 years and “are very standard in the online-learning world, including at ASU Online.”
A spokeswoman for Arizona State University, however, told The Chronicle that it does not require faculty members to sign such an agreement to teach online. Neither does Southern New Hampshire University, a private nonprofit institution with an online enrollment of more than 100,000. Nondisclosure agreements are not universally used in for-profit higher education either; the American Public University System, for example, doesn’t require its faculty or staff to sign such agreements, according to its chief executive.
David Nalbone, a professor of psychology at Purdue University-Northwest, called the restrictions on discussing teaching “an attempt to deprofessionalize faculty” that would not serve to advance good teaching. “It’s going to intimidate faculty into keeping their head down and just serving as drones,” he said in an interview.
Nalbone, who is also vice president of the Indiana conference of the AAUP, said the noncompete clause seemed to be “a particularly pernicious poison pill, especially given that so many adjunct faculty are working multiple jobs,” which they sometimes get through colleagues. “That just seems like a terrible way to treat employees.”
A statement from the national AAUP office highlights concerns about the agreement’s “sweeping gag clause.” That, said Scholtz, could impede faculty rights to complain to groups like his or even to free-speech organizations, like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The statement also decries the agreement’s claim that Purdue Global owns all faculty members’ contributions to courses they develop. The question of who owns course materials can be a murky intellectual-property issue at institutions where online courses often are created by teams that include faculty members, instructional designers, and experts on assessment. Still, Bill V. Mullen, a professor of American studies at Purdue’s main campus, called that claim of ownership “antithetical to the conditions” that he and his colleagues work under.
Vandenbosch said in her statement that since curriculum and content at Purdue Global are created collaboratively, “it would be inappropriate for an individual to claim ownership.” She did not respond to questions about the noncompete clause or the broad confidentiality restrictions.
The nondisclosure document, which includes a preamble that states the institution “is engaged in the highly competitive business of providing students with a broad range of educational services and distributing educational materials,” is contained in a faculty handbook that all instructors are required to sign. A former president of the Kaplan Faculty Senate, Robert Winters, said that it had been previously endorsed by Kaplan faculty members and then recently approved by the Purdue Global faculty body during the transition.
“It’s never been a problem,” said Winters of the policy, citing his own experiences. He said he’d discussed his teaching methods with outsiders and “I’ve never had anybody at the university tell me that I shouldn’t.” A lawyer by training who teaches in the Purdue Global public-safety program, Winters said he also didn’t share the concern over the noncompete clause. Even for faculty members who leave and go teach elsewhere a week later, he said, “I’ve never heard of it being enforced.”
Purdue University Global will continue to attract lots of attention given it unique organization structure. The non-disclosure agreement is unusual in higher education regardless of whether an institution offers programs that are primarily online or not.