The National University has big plans. The California-based institution, where most students take most of their classes online, is looking to increase its presence across the country with a focus on workforce-oriented credentials and lower costs.
The institution is part of the National University System, a collection of not-for-profit colleges and other education-related organizations. As part of the plan, the focus will be on training programs of the North Central University, graduate school that the system has acquired in 2019, merges into the National University.
The combined institution will retain the National University name and educate more than 45,000 students. Officials say Northcentral offers a vast array of graduate programs, while National offers expertise in serving adult learners, generally considered students age 25 and older.
Michael Cunningham is interim president of the National University and chancellor of the National University System. We spoke to him about the merger, National University’s broader plans and how the institution is changing the role of faculty.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HIGHER ED DIVE: One of the most challenging aspects of an M&A can be the merging of two cultures. How is this process going?
MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: This is very important. Many people focus on financial due diligence, which is very important, and the interaction between management teams, but the real point is the fusion of cultures.
That’s why it worked so well for us. We joined Northcentral over three years ago. We met, and now we are going through major changes. We have a large consultant that we’ve been working with for the last two years on this national expansion, and we have all these task forces. We brought together all the people—professors, faculty, staff—from both organizations who are working on transformational initiatives.
We have been working very effectively side by side for 2 and a half years. It’s time to get together.
The message says that there is a National University full network as part of this merger. What is the timeline for this?
I’d say we’re moving fully online to the extent that our software offerings and terms allow us to. For example, we have an excellent nursing program. It’s on the ground. We have excellent forensic laboratories. We will continue to do so. For veterans, we will continue to have sites around the country where they can come to classes in person, but that does not mean we will have campuses across the country. It simply means that we will have partnerships with community colleges and partnerships with other universities to make sure that we have offerings in the communities in which we operate.
When I came on board about 10 years ago, we were 60% on the ground and 40% online. Today, that number is closer to 90% online. It is not only online, but most of the courses are asynchronous online courses.
Why is this so important? It’s a matter of equity. If you have a mom who works all day and can only go to class at three o’clock in the morning, asynchronous courses available to her at this point in time. If you’re on the east or west coast, we want to make sure you can attend classes whenever you want. This is part of our strategy for the future.
Tell me about these partnerships with other universities and colleges. What would it look like?
In California, we are the state’s largest community college transfer university. We plan to take this model across the country and really support community college students if they want to transfer and get an education here.
They have a lot of extra space, so we plan and partner with community colleges.
Although the National University has been online for a while, is there anything you’ve improved during the pandemic?
We have brought in a new gentleman who is re-engineering the way we create courses to make them truly exciting and ensure that students get the best possible experience.
Our professors are leaning. We’ve just changed our faculty model, where they’ll spend most of their time mentoring, instructing, being in front of students and building meaningful relationships with them. Our students need our faculty to help them. Many of our adult students have been out of school for a long time and need extra support.
If we talk about the change of the model of the faculty, then it was report for 2021 from the American Association of University Professors, which said traditional academic governance at the National University has “plunged into a dire state” following the institution’s decision to terminate faculty contracts and suspend faculty policies.
I bring this up because the president of the National University at the time said that these changes were necessary to implement new policies to achieve the university’s goal of emphasizing lower-cost workforce programs. Do you think the report is fair in characterizing this move as an example of deteriorating academic governance?
We have more than 3,000 full-time and part-time teachers in the system of National Universities.
Perhaps 20 or fewer are members of the AAUP. The vast majority of teachers are very, very upset about this 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 the AAUP comments, and they gave us a 10-year extension.
The point is that we are a non-traditional university, and we have to govern ourselves as a non-traditional university. I believe in shared governance. I really believe in participatory governance where teachers have a voice, but in this world we have to move fast.
When I was at San Diego State University, I was the dean of the business school. It would take us three years, for example, to get into the new program catalog because of the red tape. This is normal for R1 universities and this rigor is very important.
In an unconventional world, we need to move fast. We need to get into that directory within three months — not three years — because we owe it to our students. They need skills and competencies that they can apply at work tomorrow.
We are a teaching university. Teachers need to be in the classroom with their students – virtually, if you will. In traditional faculty co-management, there are typically 20-30 committees, each with 10-20 faculty members.
This means that you pay the lecturers a significant amount of money and they spend a lot of time outside the classroom. We are a teaching university. We must have our faculty in the classroom.
You are the interim president of National University while the board searches for the next leader. What qualities are you looking for in the next president?
I am the interim president of the National and chancellor of the National University System. I will retire in June 2023. The National University Resident will effectively take my job in both roles and these roles will be combined.
We are looking for a leader who has a proven track record, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a college degree. Within the next month we should be able to announce who will be the next leader. We’ve narrowed it down to the finalists, and it’s a confidential search because all great leaders have great jobs.
We want to make sure that a big part of our transformation will be about data and technology to serve our students in a contactless way. If you think about it, we’re probably the only sector that hasn’t fully embraced technology.
The new leader must understand technology, must embrace technology, must be a great change agent. They must have a track record of building great cultures and respect and value faculty-staff collaborative management.