Revolving door leads Shapiro to Academic Partnerships’ rising star in Texas higher ed
Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), longtime chair of the Senate Education Committee, announced her retirement in mid-September after nearly 20 years at the State Capitol. Less than one month later, she joined Academic Partnerships, a firm that’s quickly become a leading cheerleader for the expansion of online education at universities in Texas, and even around the world.The Dallas Morning News speculated early that she’d be joining the company, founded by Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best, who made his first big splash in education by anticipating the demand for K-12 reading programs created by No Child Left Behind. Last month Shapiro told the Morning News she was “not working for Randy Best” and that she hadn’t “signed a contract or done anything with anybody.”
Shapiro said wherever she landed, she’d avoid any conflict of interest in her new line of work. “I will not be soliciting business in Texas until after I’m a senator, that’s for sure,” she told the Morning News. “My reputation is more important to me than a dollar.”
Weeks later, the Texas Tribune’s Reeve Hamilton broke the news that Shapiro would, in fact, be joining Best, as Academic Partnerships’ executive vice president of corporate communications, selling officials on its services helping public universities convert their courses into online offerings owned by Best, and recruit students to fill them. Shapiro told the Tribune that she views the Academic Partnerships model as a “positive hybrid” between a private company and a public university.
Landing Shapiro was just one of a few big moves lately from Academic Partnerships, which has also been embraced as a preferred partner in reform plans at the University of Texas System, and hosted a slick invitation-only symposium on the untapped potential for online learning at U.S. public universities.
The Future of State Universities conference presented university officials with a vision of inexpensive, data-driven and online learning, and talks from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — a major backer of for-profit online education ventures in his state — and former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, whose Hunt Institute board includes Best. As the Texas Independent reported, the conference stopped short of a sales pitch for Best’s company, but helped expose officials to his philosophy for higher ed reform while raising Academic Partnerships’ profile.
A spokeswoman for the company declined to answer questions about which schools Academic Partnerships works with, but its site lists a handful of schools, including UT-Arlington, Texas A&M-Commerce, Lamar University and Arizona State University. Using sophisticated marketing techniques to recruit students, and hosting online courses for colleges and universities, the company typically receives 50 percent to 80 percent of tuition costs depending on the contracts, according to a report from the Dallas Morning News.
The company’s business practices and involvement in higher education have been criticized and met with resistance from some university faculty in the past. A proposal to enlist Best’s company — then known as Higher Ed Holdings — at the University of Toledo was a met with a faculty revolt. According to reporting by Inside Higher Ed, one faculty member at Arkansas State resigned from an academic committee in protest because he refused to be a part of a “scam.”
Along with Shapiro’s work in Texas, the Tribune also reported that Shapiro’s duties for Academic Partnerships will include international work, including travel to Colombia. Best also runs the Whitney University System, a network of for-profit universities in Central and South America.
According to its website, WUS is a “private higher education company that invests in and supports premier universities in the region with an exclusive focus on Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking populations.” It boasts of serving over 125,000 students while serving its mission of “democratizing education while maintaining its highest quality.”
The advisory board of WUS includes Jeb Bush, as well as the Rand Corporation’s former Director of International Programs, Jerrold D. Green, and former Bush Administration U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Rod Paige.