ASU's deal with Malta school scrutinized

An international dual-degree program between Arkansas State University and the American University of Malta is on hold while ASU officials again review the partnership under a new process for vetting international agreements.

The agreement with the American University of Malta, signed in March, prompted questions from ASU faculty members, who were concerned about how the university in Malta had hired and fired its faculty, said Loretta Neal McGregor, ASU faculty senate president and a professor of psychology. Last year, the Malta university terminated all but one of its faculty members.

McGregor said she believes that questions have been answered since, and the Jonesboro university has established a 16-member committee that reviews international partnerships and recommends whether they should be signed.

The partnership with the American University of Malta will likely go before the committee this week, said Thilla Sivakumaran, executive director of ASU's Division of Global Strategies and Outreach.

Sivakumaran said the Malta university reached out to ASU about a potential partnership, which is a common way for such partnerships to originate.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was unable to obtain an interview with American University of Malta officials.

Since at least last fall, ASU officials have been working on an agreement with the American University of Malta that has undergone many forms.

ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse, along with Sivakumaran and spokesman Bill Smith, traveled to Malta during spring break this year to sign an agreement for a dual-degree program during a news conference publicized by both schools. The trip cost $7,043, which ASU System spokesman Jeff Hankins said was inflated by two flight cancellations.

In a letter to other ASU leaders in April, obtained under a public-records request, Damphousse said that only after the signing ceremony did he learn of the American University of Malta's checkered past and double-digit enrollment.

Sivakumaran said in an interview last week that before the ceremony, his office had visited the Malta campus and discussed concerns raised in Malta and in U.S. news articles about the university.

"We also understand that when you are a new university, you have bumps in the road and growing pains," Sivakumaran said. "I think they were going through some growing pains."

For a few years, news articles and Maltese government officials have questioned the actions and motives of the American University of Malta's leaders.

When the campus first started operating, the Maltese government rejected the school's representation of itself as a "university." It later granted a university license to the school in 2016, provided 16 conditions would eventually be met.

Last year, after operating for a short time, the university terminated all of its faculty members except for one person. A flood of negative university reviews on the website Glassdoor followed the terminations.

Damphousse told ASU officials that the American University of Malta had laid off its faculty after low enrollment. During the 2017-18 school year, only 23 students were enrolled, according to media reports. That number was "nearly 100" this spring, the university reported.

Many citizens in Malta also have been concerned about the use of coastal land for the school, and the issue is ongoing.

The American University of Malta is not American but rather was founded by a Jordanian development and construction firm, Sadeen Group. It's a U.S.-style university, officials say, and current faculty members have degrees from U.S. universities.

Other universities in the United States have backed off partnerships with the university after receiving criticism, but less so in recent times. The campus was eventually given the Maltese university license after Clemson University agreed to audit the school and DePaul University agreed to provide support for course development.

ASU faculty members raised two major concerns about the agreement after it was announced, McGregor said.

ASU faculty members were concerned that the agreement might involve an academic program the American University of Malta did not have, but they later learned the university did have it.

The other concern was for the hiring and selection of staff members at the American University of Malta.

"There had been a change in administration and ... because of that change in administration there seemed to be abrupt change in faculty," McGregor said. "And so the faculty here were concerned about the due process and notification and how new professors would be hired.

"The response there was like any other institution -- when you have a new administration, you will have changes in faculty positions and those sorts of things," she said, but ASU would not be involved in any of that at the Malta university.

Ultimately, ASU faculty members wanted to have greater input, McGregor said.

The partnership between ASU and the American University of Malta took many forms in the months leading up to the signing ceremony, according to records obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Within days of the signing ceremony, Arkansas State officials described the partnership as only an opportunity for students at the Malta university to receive a degree from both schools. ASU would provide online courses and curriculum to be taught in Malta and would host the Malta students during their senior years.

At one point earlier in the year, ASU had agreed to send visiting faculty members to Malta.

But when the agreement was signed in March, it was a dual-degree program in which students from each university would spend two years at each institution and earn business degrees from both schools.

Sivakumaran said the agreement he's asking the new committee to review mirrors the original plan, not the one that was signed in March. The partnership could become a dual-degree program for both schools eventually, if ASU students expressed a desire for it, he said.

ASU has been signing more international partnerships in recent years as a way to provide opportunities for its students in travel and cultural immersion and to receive international enrollment, along with higher international tuition, Sivakumaran said.

The partnerships are often dual-degree programs and can sometimes include study abroad opportunities for ASU students. One partnership with a university in Japan is tuition-free for a month, though students still have to pay for airfare and other costs.

All partnerships from now on will go before the 16-person committee, which is composed of nine faculty members and deans, department chairmen and a student.

Previously, university staff members reviewed and discussed potential partnerships, but now the committee will review a specific checklist of items and additional information before recommending action.

Sivakumaran said he did not know of any other universities that use a similar committee.

McGregor said she did not know what role the faculty would play in reviewing partnerships at other schools, but she said she's glad ASU has created the committee.

"You can't put the horse back in the barn after the door is closed," she said. "But you can look at the past and make decisions, good decisions about the future, and so I'm very optimistic that we now have a process in place where we don't have faculty members sort of being surprised with a new institution coming on with an agreement."

A Section on 09/02/2019

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