May 27, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 17

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    With this issue, the Chronicle inaugurates a new, occasional feature in which we will ask faculty or administrators to address questions of general interest. We begin with a few questions posed to University Provost Geoffrey Stone about the University’s potential participation in offering courses via the Internet through a partnership with Unext.com and a consortium of other prominent universities.

    If you have a question you think may be of general interest to the community, please send it via e-mail to chronicle@uchicago.edu, and we will be happy to consider it for publication.

    What, exactly, is Unext.com?

    Stone: Unext.com is an organization that intends to offer courses over the Internet to students throughout the world. It plans to start by offering non-credit business courses for corporate managers, then expand into other areas. For example, the University’s Little Red Schoolhouse program has begun discussions about a possible collaboration with Unext.com.

    Why is the University interested in entering into an agreement with Unext.com?

    Stone: The Internet provides an extraordinary opportunity to expand our educational outreach to a much larger constituency. That takes an equally extraordinary capital investment to develop the technology to make this possible. What makes Unext.com interesting is that it proposes a consortium of world-class universities, enabling each of them to participate in a comprehensive, online educational program without having to take the financial risk of making such large investments. In its initial program, Unext.com is working with Columbia, Chicago, Stanford, the London School of Economics and several other similar institutions. The idea is for each school to take responsibility for developing, with the technological support of Unext.com, one or more sequences of courses in areas of special expertise. Columbia was the first university to formally enter into such an agreement.

    It’s been said that the University is interested in this arrangement “for the money.” Is that true?

    Stone: We would not be considering this proposal if we did not believe it is a potentially exciting and important means of education. The University of Chicago has a long and distinguished history in the field of continuing education, and if this is the future of such programs, we want to be involved. Moreover, one of the possible benefits to the University would be our right to use any of the new technology developed through the program. This is potentially of great importance. But you asked about money. If Unext.com is very successful, the universities who participate in creating the substantive programs will share in that success. That would be nice. But we are a long way from there.

    What is the process by which the University has considered this matter?

    Stone: The issue was first broached within the GSB, whose faculty endorsed the Unext.com proposal only after extensively reviewing and rejecting several alternatives from other organizations. Because the proposal could move the University into new and uncharted territory, I brought it to the attention of the Committee of the Council of the Faculty Senate and the Council of the Faculty Senate for discussion. The spokesman for the Committee of the Council, Mel Shochet, and I also jointly appointed a five-person faculty committee to review the matter. After intensively analyzing the proposal, the committee unanimously concluded it is “appropriate and advisable for the University and the GSB to enter into the venture.” Ultimately, the decision whether to go forward will be made by the President.

    It’s been said that this matter has been tainted by conflict of interest. Is that true?

    Stone: The president of Unext.com is Andrew Rosenfield, who is also a Trustee of the University. There is always a delicate situation when the University enters into a possible transaction with a Trustee. A separate subcommittee of the Board of Trustees is monitoring the proposal, and Mr. Rosenfield has, of course, recused himself from all Trustee deliberations on the matter. In addition, several members of the faculty serve on Unext.com’s advisory board. Under standard University policy, all of these individuals must disclose their relationships with Unext.com. and may not participate in any GSB or University decisions about the proposal. Another protection against any possible dangers arising out of a conflict of interest is the fact that we will not enter into an agreement with Unext.com unless other institutions, which do not have such an issue, decide independently to join the consortium. Finally, we have insisted in our draft agreement with Unext.com that if any university signs an agreement with terms that we prefer to our own, we have the right to substitute their terms for ours. I should also note our proposed agreement offers us the right to terminate the relationship at any time if we are not satisfied with Unext.com’s performance. As you can see, we take these issues very seriously.

    What are the risks to the University of participating in this consortium?

    Stone: One risk is that Unext.com simply doesn’t succeed financially. But we have no appreciable risk in that regard because we are not putting up the capital. Another risk is that Unext.com offers programs that do not meet the University’s standards. In that case, we can and will exercise our option to terminate the arrangement. In general, however, I am convinced that, given the rapid and potentially revolutionary developments in online learning, the risks to the GSB and the University are likely to be much greater if we forego this opportunity than if we pursue it.