The University of Maryland University College is the perfect place to keep a big secret.
Many of the students, who are scattered across the globe taking mostly online classes, would have little reason to notice an administrative squabble or the absence of the college's president, who has been on leave without explanation for a week. Even if a student did notice, a story would not appear in the student newspaper, because there isn't one.
The faculty have no tenure, and if they knew anything controversial they would be reluctant to talk about it publicly.
Most of the central administrators are cloistered off at the university's Adelphi, Md., headquarters, and professors at locations from here to China could go weeks or months without ever noticing if one of those vice presidents lost his or her job.
Last Wednesday, Maryland system officials tersely announced that Susan C. Aldridge, president of University College since 2006, had been placed on indefinite leave. Since Wednesday, faculty, students, and lawmakers say they know just as little about the circumstances of Ms. Aldridge's disappearance as they did seven days ago.
At a more traditional campus with a centralized location, an acting president might have attended a faculty meeting by now. At University College, the faculty have not even formally met among themselves. The lack of communication about Ms. Aldridge's status has invited the worst kind of speculation, all within the public eye.
"We are a public institution, and transparency has been known to be very important in what we do. To let people just make up things or speculate seems unfortunate," said Betty Jo B. Mayeske, an adjunct professor of humanities and history, and a member of the Council of University System Faculty, which advises the chancellor on faculty matters.
"In College Park, I don't think it would be happening this way," added Ms. Mayeske, referring to the state's flagship campus.
Those who do know something are not talking. William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, issued a five-paragraph statement this Tuesday to announce that he was not announcing anything. It could be "a few weeks" before another missive, he added. "Thank you for your patience and understanding."
Often described as a "straight shooter," Mr. Kirwan has been uncharacteristically quiet about what is behind Ms. Aldridge's leave of absence. Even the chairman of the State Senate's education subcommittee said he could not get an answer when he spoke to the chancellor.
"The university system has been very closed-mouthed," said Paul G. Pinsky, the senator from Prince George's County, Md. "They have not been forthcoming."
Mr. Pinsky said he has not been "pushy" in requesting information, suspecting there is a logical reason for the university's keeping the matter under wraps. He added, however, that he could get "pushy" if a public institution indefinitely delayed the details on the status of its president.
Javier Miyares, University of Maryland University College's acting president, declined an interview request on Tuesday. Ms. Aldridge has not responded to requests for comment sent to her university e-mail address.
Shades of For-Profit Model
University College has more than 100 worldwide locations, but online education is at the center of its operation. It claims to be the largest public university in the United States, with more than 90,000 students, many of them part time. Among them are students who work full-time jobs and have little emotional connection to the university, much less to its leadership.
Studying for an exam in the library at UMUC's academic center in Largo on Tuesday, Ejike Michael looked perplexed when asked by a reporter what he made of Ms. Aldridge's unexplained absence. Mr. Michael has spent a year at the college taking classes toward a master's degree in information assurance, but he sheepishly conceded he had never even heard of Ms. Aldridge.
"I don't care. I don't know. You come here and do what you do," said Mr. Michael, hunched over a giant tome, Network Security: The Complete Reference.
Mr. Michael says he is fascinated with his classes, which are offered at odd hours that cater to working adults like him.
UMUC, while state-run, shares some features of the flexible, online-heavy, and career-focused for-profit institutions that play such a prominent role in delivering education to adults.
The college exists "in this gray area between the two," said Richard Garrett, an online-education expert who is managing director of the consultancy Eduventures. UMUC officials felt "more freedom than perhaps the average public institution has to embrace new delivery modes, new audiences," he says, "but have equally felt that [they're] still part of a state institution."
But some of the same qualities that help the institution compete in the adult market may also help explain the almost total silence surrounding Ms. Aldridge.
University College employs a largely adjunct faculty. Of nearly 2,000 instructors, 88 percent are part time, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Multiyear contracts, which a handful of nonprofit colleges offer in lieu of tenure, are rarely offered at the university.
Several faculty members who spoke with The Chronicle cited the lack of tenure as a reason for not wanting to talk publicly about Ms. Aldridge's absence. One professor insisted his name not be used, even when describing the president as a "warm, cordial person."
The college's faculty "have no formal power in the usual sense of faculty in higher education," says Julie Porosky Hamlin, a former UMUC senior vice president who now runs MarylandOnline, a distance-education consortium. Top administrators "can fire people at will" without the same level of "due process" one would find at a more traditional university.
"It is unfortunate that it's the type of institution that doesn't have traditional faculty structures," Ms. Hamlin said. "And as such, there's always going to be some kind of scandal that comes along."
"At UMUC everyone serves at the pleasure of whoever appointed them," she adds. "... The extent to which faculty are OK with this depends on, to some extent, the personality of whoever is the leader."
Several administrators have been dismissed or reassigned, or have resigned, in the last year without explanation, according to a former faculty member, who asked not to be identified. Among those are a dean of the graduate school; three of the college's five assistant deans; and two executive directors, the former professor said.
At least one division of faculty at University College has cited administrative turnover among a host of complaints about Ms. Aldridge's leadership. In November 2010, a group of faculty from the university's Asia division delivered what The Washington Post described as "a sort of no-confidence vote" in Ms. Aldridge's presidency. That came in the form of a poll of more than 50 instructors, in which half of the respondents rated morale at 3 or lower on a 10-point scale. Faculty described a university "whose leaders are more interested in making money and building an empire ... than in educating students," the Post wrote.
"The current administration seems more interested in marketing and revenue and competing with the for-profit schools" than it is in academic integrity, said one respondent quoted in the Post.
The former faculty member, who spoke with The Chronicle anonymously, said the pressure to compete with for-profit institutions has led to decisions that may streamline operations, but which professors question. The professor noted, for instance, that the university is abandoning a longtime policy that requires students to take final exams at a physical location with a proctor present.
Theodore E. Stone, director of academic technology, said faculty are hopeful that some additional word will be provided on Ms. Aldridge's status. For the time being, however, professors are in the dark.
"I like her," he said. "She's been a good president, and she's been effective at promoting growth at the university. We're just waiting to hear."