Faculty express concerns about Pitt-Outlier partnership

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Managing Editor

Faculty at Pitt’s Oakland campus will no longer be involved in the University’s partnership with education-technology startup Outlier, according to faculty government president Chris Bonneau. Instead, Pitt’s Johnstown campus will continue the partnership and recently signed a five-year agreement with the service where they will oversee the Outlier courses.

The University began working with Outlier.org in August 2019 to provide virtual Calculus I and Introduction to Psychology courses. According to Bonneau, this arrangement began as a way to increase access to college-level education to non-traditional students. But he said Oakland faculty were concerned by the fact that these courses were not designed by Pitt faculty and that they could potentially be competing with Pitt courses.

Bonneau said at a Faculty Assembly meeting on Dec. 2 that he spoke with faculty members from various departments whose subjects are offered as Outlier courses and heard their comments and concerns regarding the service.

“From that meeting it was clear that no one was interested in pursuing this relationship further,” he said.

Bonneau said he brought faculty’s concerns to several top Pitt administrators — Provost Ann Cudd, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Joe McCarthy, Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences Dean Kathy Blee and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies John Twyning. Bonneau said he believes that the regional campuses were then contacted about a potential partnership, and Johnstown expressed interest.

According to Outlier’s website, those who successfully complete a course — which include Calculus I, Introduction to Psychology, Introduction to Astronomy, Introduction to Statistics, Introduction to Philosophy and Introduction to Microeconomics — will receive three college credits through the University. These credits are, “transferrable to other colleges and universities subject to review and approval by the receiving institution.” Each course costs $400.

Pitt Johnstown announced in early November a scholarship program in partnership with Outlier to provide free courses to essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Frontline Workers Scholarship program will offer a scholarship for a free Outlier class to 1,000 workers, totaling $3.8 million in Pitt credits.

“Pitt Johnstown is deeply committed to expanding access to a high-quality education for all and reducing student debt — a goal we share with Outlier.org,” Jem Spectar, president of Pitt Johnstown said. “We are excited to partner with Outlier.org on this initiative to give frontline workers, who are sacrificing so much, the opportunity to advance their college careers.”

Bonneau said Faculty Assembly officials have not heard any feedback about working with Outlier from the Johnstown faculty.

“To date, we have not received any complaints or concerns raised by the Johnstown faculty. Of course, the regional campuses have the ability to structure their curriculum as they see fit,” he said. “For example, taking a class at Johnstown may not have the same content, means of assessment, etc. as a class on the Oakland campus or the Bradford campus. That’s true regardless of the presence of Outlier.”

Bonneau also said the University Senate is open to working with Johnstown faculty in the future if they raise any concerns about the Outlier partnership.

“As anyone involved in this process knows, I am not a supporter of Outlier or this partnership. I consider having it removed from the Oakland campus to be a victory for our shared governance process,” he said. “And if there are concerns from the Johnstown faculty, the Senate will assist them, as we have done with faculty at the Oakland campus.”

At the Faculty Assembly meeting, some faculty members brought up the fact that although these courses could count as credit towards graduation, they may not fulfill major prerequisites.

Sybil Streeter, the director of undergraduate advising for the psychology department, said she is concerned with the Outlier Introduction to Psychology course’s ability to fulfill prerequisites within Pitt’s psychology major.

According to Streeter, Cudd said Pitt students are not allowed to take the Outlier Introduction to Psychology course. But Streeter said she is worried about future students who may enroll in the University expecting the class to fulfill the Introduction to Psychology requirement when pursuing a psychology major, when in reality it will not fulfill the prerequisite.

“There’s sort of inconsistent information out there that says Pitt students can’t take these classes,” she said. “But I don’t know of any mechanism that would allow us to identify prospective students who take the class in their summer after their senior year of high school thinking that they’re going to get a leg up.”

Streeter also said that she is worried about negative feedback from students who could potentially enroll in Pitt and look to fulfill the psychology major requirement with the Outlier class but are unable to do so, especially after they spent the money to take the Outlier course in the first place.

“If this takes off, I can imagine there being pushback from students who have paid their $400 and have a course that says ‘Introduction to Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh,’ but we make them retake that class before they can move onto any additional coursework in the department,” Streeter said. “It just puts us in a difficult position.”

Besides the prerequisite concerns, Jeff Aziz, a senior lecturer and undergraduate adviser in the English department, said in his experience, not all courses from Pitt-Johnstown are transferable to the Oakland campus. This could potentially include credits from the Johnstown-sponsored Outlier program.

“There are some restrictions on transferring courses from regional campuses to Pitt main campus. They’re kind of ad-hoc. Johnstown happens to be one of the campuses from which we do not accept a mathematics class, either for credits towards graduation or for the satisfaction of any major or gen-ed requirements,” he said. “It’s a weird sort of ad-hoc landscape when it comes to courses that are given at regionals and don’t have the same status here.”

Bonneau also briefly brought up COVID-19 costs at the Faculty Assembly meeting. He said the total costs so far were to be expected, but things could change quickly as the pandemic continues. According to Bonneau, Pennsylvania is projecting significant revenue losses due to the pandemic, but it is not clear how this could affect University funding.

Pitt’s board of trustees approved a budget over the summer with flat tuition, as well as no layoffs, flat salaries for all employees and a roughly 6% budget cut.

“Obviously it is way too early to know what all this means for tuition, increases in the salary pool, etc,” Bonneau said. “As always, we will continue to oppose cuts to the academic mission of the University. This includes furloughs, layoffs, etc.”