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U.S. Senators caution Robbins on Ashford University acquisition

Amy Bailey

The University of Arizona has sent out several statements about COVID-19 and how the administration plans to prevent a widespread outbreak on campus.

Two U.S. senators sent a letter on Aug. 12 to University of Arizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins warning him about acquiring the assets of Ashford University. 

Robbins announced the acquisition as part of a new nonprofit entity called UA Global Campus on Aug. 3. Ashford is a for-profit, online university owned by education technology service company Zovio. 

RELATED: Campus reentry update: Robbins and Carmona discuss downward COVID-19 trends and dorm move-in

The announcement was met with criticism from UA-affiliated communities; UA’s College of Education sent a memo to Robbins and other top administrators, saying the decision was made without diligence and ran “contrary to our mission as a public, land grant university that is a Hispanic Serving Institution.” 

Eller Faculty called the acquisition a “lemon” in a memo obtained by Arizona Public Media

The Coalition of Academic Justice at the UA also expressed their concern, calling the acquisition a “crass corporatization of our public universities,” in a tweet the day of the announcement.

Now, the letter sent by Sens. Dick Durban (D- IL) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) urged Robbins to “take steps to protect students should the transactions be consummated.” The senators said UA embracing Ashford through acquiring its assets could compromise UA’s reputation.

“Ashford, now owned by Zovio, has been a major player during a period of the last two decades that a group of state attorneys general referred to as ‘open season’ on students due to the systemic defrauding of students and fleecing of taxpayers across the for-profit college industry,” the letter stated.  

Sens. Durban and Brown cited the $7.25 million settlement Ashford University paid consumer fraud as some reasons for concern, plus another ongoing lawsuit against the university filed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. The letter also said Ashford was ordered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to pay $30 million in 2016 for deceptive acts and misleading students. 

Another point of concern from the senators addressed in the letter was Zovio’s involvement in the Global Campus. 

An FAQ document from the UA stated the UA Global Campus would become a client of Zovio. 

The UA is investing $1 to acquire Ashford University from Zovio; in exchange, the company will provide “education technology services” and receive 19.5% of annual tuition revenue for the 15-year partnership. That payment is conditional on the Global Campus producing a 15-year income stream of at least $225 million.

“In other words, the organization – and in some cases individuals – responsible for Ashford’s shameful record as a for-profit college are slated to continue to be responsible for a key variety of functions of the UA Global Campus – many of those the very functions for which Ashford were investigated and sued,” Durban and Brown said. 

They urged Robbins and the board of trustees to enact clear policies and abandon mandatory arbitration clauses, class action bans and add independent oversight if the acquisition proceeds. 

During the Aug. 13 campus reentry press conference, Robbins addressed both the memo from the College of Education and from Sens. Durban and Brown. 

“We are aware of all of those issues that came up in our due diligence about practices Ashford had gone through years ago,” Robbins said. “I would refer everyone to the WASC accreditation letter – right now, WASC is reviewing the change in ownership of Ashford University to the University of Arizona Global Campus.”

In a letter to Sens. Durbin and Brown, Robbins acknowledged their concerns and said the acquisition provides Global Campus with a “robust role for the University of Arizona in UAGC’s governance and management.”*

 ”The Affiliation Agreement between the University of Arizona and UAGC will provide for UA representation on the independent UAGC board, the UA to nominate the UAGC President, and the UA to provide other support services,” Robbins said in the letter.* “Collectively, these elements will ensure that UAGC’s independent board enables the highest-quality student-facing outcomes.”

*Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include quotes from the letter President Robbins sent to Sens. Durbin and Brown. 

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