LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Faculty organizers object to Outlier courses

To the editor:

As members of the University of Pittsburgh faculty, we would like to express our concern about the Outlier courses discussed in a recent article in the Post-Gazette and elsewhere. The Outlier startup is led by venture capitalist Aaron Rasmussen. Rasmussen knows Pitt Provost Ann Cudd from her time at Boston University, and approached her personally to pitch his company.

According to Provost Cudd and Rasmussen, Outlier is offering online courses of a quality comparable to those offered at the University of Pittsburgh, but at half the cost. The Outlier website states that this company offers “high quality, university-level courses” and that, upon completion, students will earn college credit from the University of Pittsburgh. So far, two Outlier courses have been offered to a limited number of students on a trial basis since the start of the fall 2019 semester.

Online classes can be a great way to reach students who would otherwise be unable to earn college credit due to work and family obligations. Moreover, situations like the coronavirus pandemic have shown that online courses are sometimes even necessary. However, it is important that all courses for Pitt credit are designed with input from Pitt faculty. Unlike other online instruction offered at Pitt, the Outlier courses are not designed or taught by University of Pittsburgh faculty. Instead, instructors from other institutions across the country deliver taped lectures and all assessments are fully automated, relying on AI to flag possible cheating.

It is Outlier employees, not Pitt faculty, who oversee the discussion boards available for students to ask questions and these employees are not required to be subject experts. We do not know anything about the ownership or stewardship of the personal data of students enrolled in Outlier courses. The Outlier business model relies on algorithms, not people. Their courses do not allow for any interaction between students and an instructor. This makes the Outlier courses quite different from online courses that faculty currently teach at Pitt and inimical to the ethos of a college education that centers on the engagement between students and teachers.

The way in which these courses were rolled out is also cause for concern. Shared governance is the principle whereby faculty are partners in decision-making in universities. It is an alarming and unprecedented decision to have an external private company design and deliver courses worth Pitt credit on a website badged with the Pitt seal. Provost Cudd made this decision with very little input from faculty. In fact, most Pitt faculty, even within the affected departments, only learned about the courses from the article in the Post-Gazette after the courses had already been offered to students.

Both Rasmussen and Provost Cudd have remained silent concerning the details of the financial arrangement between Outlier and the university. Rasmussen has made it clear that Outlier is a for-profit company. His company profits from its partnership with the University of Pittsburgh, which lends prestige and legitimacy to the courses that his team develops. It is unclear what kind of revenue this will generate for Pitt and how this revenue will be spent.

Provost Cudd’s primary argument for adopting the courses is to increase the accessibility of a college education by offering these courses to students at a reduced cost. We agree that the cost of tuition is too high. However, we feel that there are better ways of increasing the affordability of a Pitt degree than by putting the Pitt name on courses that have no connection to Pitt faculty. For example, universities within Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education have committed to a tuition freeze for the upcoming academic year.

Meanwhile, Pitt’s Board of Trustees voted to raise tuition by 2.75 percent for in-state students and 5 percent for out of state students while awarding a half-million dollar bonus to Chancellor Gallagher and substantial raises to eight other administrators, including Provost Cudd. In addition, Pitt has paid the Ballard Spahr law firm over a million dollars to date in their efforts to prevent Pitt faculty and grad students from holding union elections. The money that the administration continues to pay to this law firm could be better spent on needs-based scholarships for Pitt students.

Students deserve to learn from faculty who are engaged in their curriculum. As we are all learning right now, faculty engagement is particularly important for effectively designing and implementing online courses. This giveaway contract to Outlier is a violation of shared governance and further evidence of the increasing corporatization of our university. This situation highlights the reasons why we are working to organize a union of Pitt faculty. It is clear that Pitt faculty require union representation in order to protect our rights and have a real say in how the university is run. When the administration fails to seek out the perspective of faculty and students on major issues such as this one, they send a message about the university’s priorities. Caring about faculty working conditions means caring for the future of Pitt, its students, and the public good.

— The Pitt Faculty Organizing Committee