National University has big plans. The California-based institution, where most students take the majority of their classes online, is aiming to grow its footprint across the country by focusing on workforce-oriented credentials and lowering prices.
The institution is part of the National University System, a collection of nonprofit colleges and other education-related organizations. As part of the plan to focus on workforce training programs, Northcentral University, a graduate institution that the system acquired in 2019, is merging into National University.
The combined institution will retain National University’s name and enroll over 45,000 students. Officials say Northcentral brings a vast suite of graduate programs while National offers expertise in serving adult learners, typically thought of as students aged 25 and older.
Michael Cunningham is National University’s interim president and National University System’s chancellor. We spoke with him about the merger, National University’s broader plans and how the institution is reshaping the faculty role.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HIGHER ED DIVE: One of the most challenging aspects of mergers and acquisitions can be blending two cultures together. How is that process going?
MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: It’s very important. A lot of people focus on the financial due diligence, which is very important, and synergies between management teams, but the real essence is the merging of the cultures.
That’s why we did it so well. We affiliated with Northcentral over three years ago. We got to know each other, and we’re going through a major transformation now. We have a major consultant we’ve been working with over the last two years on this national expansion, and we have all these workgroups. We’ve merged all the people — the professors, faculty, staff — for both organizations working on initiatives for the transformation.
We’ve been working side by side very effectively for 2 1/2 years now. It’s time to come together.
The announcement said National University is going totally online as part of this merger. What is the timetable for that?
I would say we’re going totally online to the extent that the programmatic offerings and modalities allow us to. For instance, we have a great nursing program. That’s on-ground. We have great forensic science labs. We’re going to continue to do that. For veterans, we’re going to continue to have across-the-country sites where they can come in person to class, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to have campuses all across the country. It just means that we’ll have partnerships with community colleges and partnerships with other universities to make sure that we have offerings in and of the communities in which we serve.
When I came on board around 10 years ago, we were 60% on-ground and 40% online. Today, that number is closer to 90% online. Not only is it online, but the majority of the courses are asynchronous online courses.
Why is that so important? It’s an equity issue. If you have a mom working full time in the day and she can only take classes at three in the morning, asynchronous courses are available to her at that point in time. If you’re on the East Coast or the West Coast, we want to make sure you can take classes anytime that you want. That’s part of our strategy going forward.
Tell me about these partnerships with other universities and community colleges. What would that look like?
In California, we’re the largest transfer university in the state for community colleges. We’re planning to take that model across the country and really support community college students when they want to transfer and finish their degrees with us.
They have a lot of extra space so we plan on, and we are, partnering with community colleges.
Even though National University has been doing online for awhile, is there anything you’ve improved upon during the pandemic?
We brought on a new gentleman who is revamping the way we actually create courses to make them really exciting and ensure that students are having the best experience they can.
Our professors are leaning in. We just changed our faculty model where the majority of their time will be spent mentoring, coaching, being in front of the students, and really developing caring relationships with them. Our students need our faculty to help them along. A lot of our adult learners haven’t been in school in a long time and they need that extra support.
Speaking of changing the faculty model, there was a 2021 report from the American Association of University Professors that said the traditional academic governance at National University “plunged into an abysmal condition” over the institution’s decision to abrogate faculty contracts and suspend faculty policies.
I bring this up because the president at the time of National University said those changes were necessary to introduce new policies to meet the university’s goal of emphasizing workforce programs at a lower price point. Do you think the report fairly characterized this move as an example of declining academic governance?
We have over 3,000 full-time and part-time faculty in the National University System.
Maybe 20 or fewer are AAUP members. The vast majority of the faculty members are really, really upset with that statement because it was not true.
We had a 10-year review process with WASC [National University’s accreditor], and the longest approval rating you can get is 10 years. They reviewed not only our faculty governance but also the comments AAUP said, and they gave us a 10-year extension.
The fact of the matter is we are a nontraditional university, and we have to govern ourselves as a nontraditional university. I believe in shared governance. I really believe in participatory governance, where the faculty have a voice, but in this world we have to move quickly.
When I was at San Diego State University, I was the dean of the business school. It would take us three years, for instance, to get in the catalog for a new program because of the bureaucratic back and forth. That’s okay for R1 universities, and that rigor is very important.
In the nontraditional world, we need to move fast. We need to get in that catalog within three months — not three years — because we owe it to our students. They want skills and competencies that they can apply to the job tomorrow.
We’re a teaching university. Faculty need to be in the classroom with their students — virtually, if you will. With the traditional shared governance faculty arrangement, there’s usually 20 or 30 committees that each have 10 to 20 members that are all faculty members.
That means you’re paying a faculty member a significant amount of money, and they’re spending a lot of their time outside the classroom. We’re a teaching university. We need to have our faculty in the classroom.
You’re the interim president of National University while the board looks for its next leader. What qualities are you looking for in the next president?
I am the interim president of National and the chancellor of the National University System. I will be retiring in June of 2023. The president of National University will effectively take my job in both roles, and those roles will be combined.
We’re looking for a leader that has proven experience, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in higher ed. We should be in a position within the next month to announce who the next leader is. We’re down to the finalists, and it’s a confidential search because all the great leaders have great jobs.
We want to make sure a big part of our transformation is going to be about data and technology to serve our students in a touchless type of manner. If you think about it, we probably are the only sector left that really hasn’t embraced technology to the fullest extent.
The new leader has to understand technology, has to embrace technology, has to be a great change agent. They have to have experience building great cultures and respecting and appreciating the participatory governance of faculty and staff.