Kozachik: UA's Robbins needs to go

Late last week UA President Robbins off-loaded, sort of, yet another person he’d like to take the fall for the UA financial mismanagement. I told Paul Ingram from the Tucson Sentinel that I believe Dave Heeke (former UA athletics director) was in over his head from day one. Here’s a link to Paul’s story: Arizona Athletic Director Dave Heeke out, replaced by ex-softball coach Mike Candrea

Heeke’s ouster is ‘sort of’ that because he’ll stay on the payroll being paid roughly a million dollars through March 2025. Now even the sports reporters at the Star are getting a little vocal about Robbins not being held accountable. The sports beat is a bubble that protects its own. The red ink Heeke/Robbins have amassed is historic at the UA. Interim AD former softball coach Mike Candrea should have had that job the day Greg Byrne left. I doubt Robbins will be able to manipulate him the way he has so many others.

Under Heeke transparency within the Athletics Department was always lacking. Last week the Tucson Agenda printed portions of a letter written by current UA cross country athletes that said this:

That seems to be a theme across campus these days.

Under Robbins’ ‘leadership’ the UA now has virtually every one of its top administrative positions unfilled. There are ‘interim’s’ at the Provost level, Senior VP for Research, CFO, Athletics Director, the Senior Vice President for Diversity Equity and Inclusion and the Vice President and Chief Safety Officer. That Diversity position is the one he couldn’t make a decision on who to hire, so he hired 2. Now they’re both gone. If ABOR doesn’t see the one common thread in the mess then they’re asleep at the wheel.

Athletics is just one of the pain points for the UA. You’ll soon be hearing more about the UA Global Campus mess that Robbins’ inner circle brought to campus. One of the troubling parts of the investigation is that the guy ABOR put in charge of righting the financial ship has said this about the acquisition of UAGC: “To date, UAGC has been nothing but a positive financial impact on the university,” Arnold said. That’s lifted from an Inside Higher Education article that was published a while back.

The information in that article was built upon by an Arizona Republic article that ran last Thursday. From that Gov. Katie Hobbs sent ABOR this letter:

She goes on to request an outside 3rd party audit of the UA’s financial mess. But ABOR and Arnold should take this next point from her letter to heart, especially in light of Arnold’s now publicly stated support of the Ashford purchase, his role in putting together a financial plan and his clear conflict in simultaneously sitting on the ABOR.

Why would anybody of any quality or character come and join an institution that’s in the UA’s present ‘leadership’ condition. Multiple interim appointments, faculty voting no confidence in the president, and now the governor publicly calling for external audits. In Hobbs’ own words “To say the situation demonstrates that there is significant work ahead to restore the university’s financial health would be an understatement. This is no longer just about finances, this is about a lack of accountability, transparency, and at the end of the day, leadership. It is now apparent that we can no longer continue on the same course.”

Three weeks ago I wrote an op/ed calling for Robbins’ dismissal. We may soon see if a golden parachute is right now being sewn for him.

Before the actual purchase of the online university was finalized Robbins was hosting private parties at ‘his’ house and sharing emails with others trying to preemptively do damage control. Here are a couple more quotes from that same Inside Higher Education story:

“Do you know the current retention and graduation rate at Ashford?” Brent White, one of the university officials responsible for the merger, wrote to another university official in a May 29, 2020, email. At the time, the six-year graduation rate was 9%.

“The Wikipedia page on Ashford reads like a hit job … We really do need a PR firm immediately.”

The email thread was code-named “antelope” for the group of UA people involved with the acquisition. The Arizona Republic reported that the code name simply added another layer of secrecy to their exchanges. Those involved signed nondisclosure agreements.

Robbins was getting strong criticism from all over campus, and from some of his inner circle (some of whom are now gone) about moving forward with the purchase. So why did he decide to move forwad? . In another Inside Higher Education article, the speculation was purely trying to keep up with the Jones’. It’s exactly how he got in trouble with athletics. If ASU builds a practice facility so do we. I saw that dynamic from the inside for years. Heeke was just along for Robbins’ ride. Here are a couple more quotes from the article that make the point:

Phil Hill, partner at MindWires Consulting and publisher of the Phil on Ed Tech blog, said the California case, and the broader difficulties UAGC is facing, could have significant implications for what has become a trend in which for-profit colleges with troubled records convert into nonprofit partners for state institutions that want to start online programs quickly. Examples include Kaplan University, which Purdue University bought for $1 to create Purdue Global, and the University of Arkansas, which bought the for-profit online university Grantham for the same price.

Ashford’s parent company was Zovio. In 2017 the California attorney general brought the hammer down on them with claims that Ashford had lied to students about what they’d gain from associating with the college. From Inside Higher Ed:

But what seemed like a no-fail operation came crashing down in 2017 when Ashford and its then-parent company, Zovio, came under the scrutiny of the California Attorney General’s Office for using fraudulent sales practices to rope in vulnerable students. In 2022, a San Diego County Superior Court judge fined the school $22 million for luring in students with false promises and illegal tactics.

That’s what faculty and staff, and Robbins’ inner circle were advocating they not get involved with. There’s a part of federal law called the Browser Defense whereby students can seek redress if they feel the conditions of their enrollment were falsely presented. Here’s what the U.S. Department of Education is saying about Ashford:

The former Ashford University repeatedly lied to students over a decade about the cost, time requirement and value of its degree program, making the education they obtained “effectively worthless,” the U.S. Education Department found in an independent review.

As a direct result of the DOE review they’re forgiving $72M in student loans for over 2,300 former Ashford students. What’s in court now is whether the UA, since it purchased all of Ashford’s assets and liabilities is on the hook for that too.

When the UA deal was struck Zovio was providing enrollment and marketing services to the UA in exchange for a 19.5% cut in the tuition they brought in over the first 15 years of the relationship. The UA leadership has publicly told faculty and staff that the recruiting and enrollment methods would change under its leadership. Prosecutors alleged at the trial that they have not. Robbins’ mouthpiece Pam Scott simply said the UA has ““full confidence in UAGC’s current marketing and recruitment efforts.” That sounds very much like John Arnold’s confidence in how things with Ashford are going financially.

Robbins denied receiving any ‘finder’s fee’ for the Ashford merger. But ABOR did give him a $45K bonus on top of his $816,000 annual salary for completing the merger before June 20th of last year.

Bob Shireman is the director of higher education excellence at the Century Foundation. That’s a think tank whose focus is on economic, racial and gender equity in education, health care and work. They’ve studied these online for-profit universities for years. It’s his opinion that the leadership at the University of Arizona overlooked allegations made against Zovio and Ashford, including the California case, because they wanted to better compete with ASU Online. Also from that same Inside Higher Education article he says this:

“What the California attorney general’s office alleges is exactly what UA faculty groups were concerned about, yet leadership claimed that those problems were in the past.”

The chair of the UA Faculty Senate simply says “at this point I would say our vote-of-no-confidence meter is off the charts.” They have yet to take one and one has to wonder if ABOR should really need that nudge in order to hold Robbins accountable for this mess.

Meanwhile the United Campus Workers of Arizona did release a statement of no confidence last week in which they called for Robbins’ resignation – I believe they meant that in the commonly understood meaning of the word. Here’s their letter:

They hit the nail on the head – what’s lacking is a culture of transparency, accountability and honesty. There’s still no official statement coming from the Faculty Senate – a body that purports to be closer to the administration and representing faculty more broadly. But the governor has now weighed in. If the Board of Regents is to retain any public credibility, and if the UA is going to fill its many high level vacancies with quality applicants, Robbins needs to go.