On Tuesday, May 13 the faculty will vote on a motion to sever the College’s ties with K12, Inc., the corporation that the College has partnered with to create Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), a foreign language education program for K-12 students. While the motion carries no weight — only the Board of Trustees has the power to sever ties with K12 — it is the most salient push back to one of President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz’s efforts.
“The business practices of K12, Inc. are at odds with the integrity, reputation, and educational mission of the College,” said the motion, which was obtained by the Campus. French Professor Paula Schwartz submitted the motion.
In an email to the entire faculty on May 2 — also obtained by the Campus — Schwartz summarized the accusations into three categories, urging her colleagues to vote in favor of the motion.
The first was that K12, Inc. had been sued by a number of states for false claims and dubious practices. Secondly, that MIL’s product had been censored by K12, removing reference to same-sex relationships and unmarried couples in order to conform to Texas Board of Education standards. Thirdly, the email noted that K12, Inc. had come under fire for factual errors that were recently discovered in MIL’s Latin program.
Vice President for Communications Bill Burger and Vice President for Pedagogical Development for MIL Aline Germain-Rutherford both denied any allegations that MIL censored content.
“We have never been asked to censor, change edit or delete any material from any of our courses by a state or locality as part of some political agenda,” Germain-Rutherford said. “K12 Inc. has never tried to influence our course content. MIL has always been in charge of the content.”
Burger echoed Germain-Rutherford, calling Schwartz’s censorship claims a “total falsehood.”
“I want to emphasize what I believe is the central narrative of this story: a group of faculty are seeking to end our relationship with MIL. They have made some very serious accusations. We categorically deny those assertions and to my knowledge they have no evidence to support them.”
However, Burger did acknowledge that the Latin department did experience issues with MIL.
“It was brought to the attention of a faculty member at Middlebury College earlier this year that there were a number of errors in one of the Latin language course marketed and sold by MIL,” he said. “This course was created prior to the joint venture with Middlebury and MIL. An investigation into these course materials confirmed that there were, indeed, a number of errors.”
But Burger said that the errors were “quickly corrected,” and that the Latin courses will no longer be marketed as MIL courses.
The College first went into partnership with K12 in 2010 and has since created videos for the K-12 market in five languages: Spanish, French, Chinese, German and Arabic. Liebowitz has championed MIL since its creation as an important investment for the College’s brand.
“We pursued the initiative for three reasons,” Liebowitz told the faculty at its meeting on April 28. “First, we wanted to retain out leadership in the languages. Our reputation as leaders in teaching languages began 100 years ago with the intensive, immersion Language schools, which introduced a totally new way to teach languages … The second reason was and is to expand access to language courses for pre-college students. And third, we recognized, especially during the recession, that in order for the College to protect what it valued so much about its residential liberal arts offerings here on campus … we need, eventually, to find ways to increase overall revenue,” concluded Liebowitz.
But many faculty members do not buy the College’s explanations. Associate Professor of Education Studies Jonathan Miller-Lane said that he was originally supportive of the College leveraging its language expertise to open new revenue streams.
“Why should we not try and leverage our strengths?” he said. “However, given what we now know is happening it turns out to be a poorly executed plan. By far, this is the most appalling thing that I have heard regarding MIL and K-12 Inc. and it leads me to now support the effort to sever all connections with K-12, Inc.”
According to Burger, one of the root issues is the reluctance of some faculty to accept that MIL should have a role in Middlebury’s future.
But Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies Laurie Essig said that she was indeed worried about MIL’s relationship with K-12, Inc.
“It is not in Middlebury’s interest as an institution of higher learning to be so closely allied with a business that is far less interested in education than it is the replacement of face to face learning with online ‘learning,’” she said. “Their unproved record as educators, their for profit motive and their highly politicized agenda ought to give us pause — but because it hurts learning. And Middlebury is dedicated to just that.”
Miller-Lane called the idea that we need to “face the facts” of K-12 market “specious.”
“We are doing this to make a buck, period. We are choosing to enter this market and we can choose to leave. We must now make clear what our standards are.”