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Background

I'm doing some work for a new online-only university that is being founded, based in the US and offering degrees up to doctorate in courses like history, philosophy and literature. It's heavily research-based and doesn't allow credit transfer.

One of the great things about this university is that it will offer scholarships to people in developing countries allowing them to complete a degree at a US university for as little as $100. The university is not designed to make money, but only to keep itself going. (This does not mean it is non-profit; in fact most non-profits are designed to make as much money as possible, they just don't have shareholders.)

We need academics/professors to volunteer to advise and help us get started, especially during the current period where the application for a new university is being considered. We expect them to help by:

  • associating with the university for the sake of the application, even if only in name;
  • marking theses, when students reach that stage (though no teaching will be required).

The questions

I've tried emailing professors asking for their help, but it seems no one is interested. I get the impression that online universities don't have much respect from these people and that no one wants to risk their reputation by being involved with something new and different.

What is the best approach to convince established professors to contribute to this project? Would they expect to be paid in return? (A stipend is possible, as well as a title, but no salary.)

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    In response to your question about professors expecting to be paid, yes. – Jonathan Landrum Nov 26 '13 at 15:36
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    It's an online-only university based in the US and offering degrees up to doctorate — Red flag! — _ Since the university is research based there is otherwise virtually no need of professors_ — Red flag! — some money, not a salary — Red flag! — I specifically do not want to give the name of the university — Red flag! There's no such thing as a reputable online doctorate. Students need faculty mentors to learn to do good research. If you want good faculty, you have to pay them as faculty. Good places encourage probing questions from prospective faculty. This smells like a scam. – JeffE Nov 26 '13 at 19:44
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    Open University doctorates are earned on-campus, not online. – JeffE Nov 27 '13 at 8:01
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    Friendly mod notice: I've edited the question to clearly separate the presentation of the background and the questions asked. We already have some good constructive answers. I've cleared a lot of comments, incorporating the added information into the question… if you feel your comment was valuable, please forgive me and consider expanding it into an answer! – F'x Nov 27 '13 at 13:04
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    'associating with the university for the sake of the application, even if only in name' - Red Flag! Looking for made-up legitimation from established scholars, a practice common for conference organizers and shady scholarly journal editors. – Cape Code May 15 '14 at 14:53
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There are a number of issues here:

  1. The new university probably isn't accredited (yet?) and is for-profit (at least that's how I interpret "this does not mean it is non-profit"). In principle a for-profit, unaccredited university could be innovative and wonderful, but it will face a lot of prejudice because most such universities are not.

  2. Joining a new venture like this involves putting a lot of trust in the people who are running it. If they turn out to be crazy or dishonest, then everyone involved will look bad. It's difficult to reach this level of trust, and almost impossible starting with e-mail from a stranger.

  3. Advising research students takes time and effort. It's not just a matter of proposing a topic and waiting for the thesis to come in; instead, there's a lot of advising and mentoring. This is a major commitment, and I wouldn't want to have my name associated with something like this unless I was doing everything necessary to help the students succeed. Some of your comments (such as "virtually no need of professors until it comes to marking theses" or "we need academics associated with the university for the sake of the application, even if its only in name") sound like I would be setting students up for failure or misleading them as to my level of involvement.

  4. Time is a major limiting factor. If I had all the time in the world, then I would cheerfully volunteer to help with all sorts of things. As it is, though, there are a lot of students at my own institution who seek supervision, and working with them in person is more satisfying and productive than supervising someone over the internet. If I maintain my current level of engagement with students in person, and add internet activities, then what am I going to cut? It's not enough to make a case that participating in this new university is valuable. Instead, you have to make the case that it is more valuable than whatever I might be doing instead, such as research or family time.

  5. What you describe comes across as saying professors aren't really necessary except for validating research output and ought to be willing to do that for relatively little money. This philosophy won't be popular with many professors, who would like to believe they engage in plenty of crucial activities. If this isn't the impression you would like to convey, then you need to modify your sales pitch.

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Different requests warrant different communication styles. By simply sending an email and leaving it at that, your request is in the same boat as any other piece of spam they receive; unsolicited mail asking for their resources (time, money, whatever).

If you truly wish to have them partner with you in a new business venture, you should engage in standard courtship behavior expected for this sort of relationship; phone conversations, in-person conversations, take them out for coffee, lots of follow-up. Additionally, they'll need to be convinced that you're not a fly-by-night nobody and that it's worth their while to work with you. This takes time and effort, and is guaranteed not to happen if your main communication channel is email. You are acting in a Sales position here; treat it as such.

Do note that you will likely be received with significant skepticism, and you should have ready answers for all the questions you're sure to receive.

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This my vary by school, but at least at my institution, this is close to the line where approval from higher-ups is required for a professor to participate. While professors have a great deal of latitude with how they use their time, the university does actually claim possession of our teaching (it is, after all, what they're paying us for).

There are written-in exceptions (for example, giving tutorials on research subjects is a standard thing, and allowed), and it's possible to request permission for other cases. It's not clear to me from your question whether what you're asking for would require permission, but it's close enough that I probably wouldn't be comfortable without permission. That's a big enough deal that it might discourage participants who were otherwise inclined.

  • Thank you very much for your honest reply. What about for advising only but not for teaching, would that be acceptable? – Alasdair Nov 26 '13 at 15:58
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    @Alasdair: I haven't read my own university's exact policies on this carefully, and I'm sure they vary by institution, so I don't know exactly what's permissible and what isn't; that's something you should consult with your lawyers about. I'm just giving one reason professors might not be receptive to your request: they, like me, may not be sure exactly what's allowed, and may decide that even if this idea is interesting, it's not interesting enough to do the amount of investigation needed to decide whether to participate just to find out that they're not allowed to. – Henry Nov 26 '13 at 17:53
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Unfortunately I seem to agree with JeffE. It does sound like a scam. The open universities I know: a) They have permanent administrative personnel organizing the university tasks b) Despite the fact they are online they have buildings (not necessarily a campus) but at least offices where the administrative people work. c) They have deans, professors and lecturers. Some of them are part-time but certainly not all of them. All faculty is paid accordingly d) Before hiring professors they have courses, syllabus etc. Based on that they hire their faculty. g) For hiring faculty they make public announcements. Public announcements are put in scientific societies (i.e., ACM), on the university site, on press etc. As a result they cost money. Emailing professors sound a poor-guy's scam working from his basement.

If you have all those prerequisites, you will be taken seriously. If not, you should probably look to well-established open universities for inspiration.

  • Long story short: I'm no longer involved in this project and from what I last heard it has fallen through, probably for the reasons you gave. I mostly agree with what you and most people here have said, but I do resent that just the idea that doing something different and 'charitable' sounds like a scam. I think this is extremely pessimistic and this type of thinking will hold back the academic community from evolving in positive ways. The same for the assumptions that people here made, which are irrelevant to my original question and there is simply not enough space here to defend or explain. – Alasdair May 15 '14 at 18:24

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