Leaked contract contradicts ASU's previous claims about Cengage

The University has clarified its relationship with Cengage and backtracked on previous statements

A week after accusations of unethical behavior rocked the economics department at ASU, the University has released new details that clarify the relationship between ASU and Cengage, an online educational software platform, while backtracking on previous statements. 

Read more: ASU denies viral claims that it purposely failed economics students

The controversy began last week, when clinical assistant professor Brian Goegan sent an email to students accusing the University of purposely failing students, forcing students to pay for software to turn in homework and making a profit from its relationship with Cengage. 

The fallout from the controversy led student leaders to call for an outside investigation into the alleged behavior, as well as increased scrutiny on how ASU is benefitting from students' use of Cengage software.

Read more: USGT calls on ASU to investigate claims about economics department

The University initially denied all allegations, including multiple statements from several University officials saying that students did not have to use the software unless they were taking a specialized adaptive learning course. 

"The economics courses using MindTap are optional at this time; students may choose to take the same courses taught by other professors using traditional university grading/textbook platforms," ASU Executive Vice President and University Provost Mark Searle said in a statement last week.

But that claim was false, according to a statement "rebutting a series of false claims" shared by ASU President Michael Crow on Twitter Tuesday night, along with a lengthy explanation addressing the rest of the accusations. 

"All ECN 211 and 212 professors are required to use the Mankiw texts and accompanying MindTap learning platform, which are bundled together for ASU students at a discounted price of $93," the rebuttal reads.

But in a followup statement, a University official pointed out that students who aren't in the adaptive course do pay less. 

"The university negotiated a bulk purchasing agreement with Cengage to get the cost of the text and MindTap to $93," the official said in the statement. "Students in the adaptive sections of the course instead pay a $100 course fee which gets them the adaptive courseware and the Mankiw book/MindTap combo. So, it’s $7 more expensive to be in the adaptive course." 

The University also claimed the agreement with Cengage was more affordable than the alternatives Goegan proposed in his email.

"If a student had just bought the book alone from a non-ASU vendor, and used Blackboard or Canvas to submit assignments instead of MindTap ... it would have been $55 more expensive, since the same text is $148 on Amazon without MindTap included,” the statement read. "Those students would also lose the benefit of MindTap’s interactive features."

The rebuttal statement also came after a contract between ASU and Cengage was leaked to media outlets and student leaders, who published it earlier this week.

That contract shows that ASU could profit from the Cengage software under an agreement where Cengage could license software developed at ASU to other universities, in addition to sharing the fees during software development. 

According to the agreement, students were charged $100 dollars during the period from spring 2017 through spring 2018, during a so-called "pilot period," with ASU retaining $21 of that with $79 dollars going to Cengage. After that period ended, ASU kept only $1 dollar, with $99 dollars going to Cengage. 

According to expected enrollment numbers in the contract, this would mean ASU made more than $25,000 through the agreement.

The rebuttal says those payments to ASU are "to offset the costs of developing the platform." 

A University official with knowledge of the contract said the clause that would give ASU profits if Cengage licensed the software to another University is hypothetical, and meant to protect ASU's intellectual property.

"It would be irresponsible on the part of the University to let someone else sell that intellectual property without requiring that we get paid fairly for our work," noting that the clause is common in similar contracts. 

The official also said none of the collaboration between the University and Cengage was intended to make a profit. 

"ASU didn’t contribute its intellectual property to this effort to someday make money on it," the official said. "We did it because we believe it will help our students succeed. That was our only goal."

Despite initially stating that it does not generally comment on personnel matters, ASU named Goegan and called out a number of shortcomings in their statement Tuesday, citing "internal and external inquiries seeking more information." 

The statement said Goegan "lashed out in a number of public and private forums, accusing his former colleagues of unethical or even illegal behavior surrounding the selection of instructional materials and grading standards."

Those interactive features work in tandem with the book at the center of the controversy, a digital version of "The Principles of Economics" by Gregory Mankiw. Mankiw's textbook is used in all ECN 211 and 212 classes in an effort to standardize the curriculum, according to ASU's rebuttal.

Mankiw, a Harvard law professor, told The State Press that he was not previously aware of the ongoing controversy at ASU. However, he penned an essay in March that discussed the benefits and shortcomings of digital technology on the textbook market. 

In the essay, Mankiw said that the base cost of digital textbooks is lower, and that they are more convenient to students. He also described a system very similar to MindTap in which students can submit problem sets online that are then automatically graded.

"The system provides feedback to the student faster than a traditional human teaching assistant can," Mankiw said in the essay. 

But Mankiw noted that the burden of cost could be passed onto students. 

"Yet these features of digital textbooks are not free to produce," Mankiw said. "Their cost is included in the price of the textbook, so it is ultimately paid by students." 

Mankiw said the pedagogical value of the digital tools is worth the extra cost, noting that "innovations will surely be subject to study by educational researchers in the years to come."

While the University continues to deny any wrongdoing, the episode has already sparked a wider discussion about the high cost-burden textbooks and other extra materials on an already expensive education. 

Other students complained that beyond the cost of the software and textbooks, "the material has nothing to do with the lectures" and ends up being a waste of time.

Bailey Harris, a junior majoring in business management who took both ECN 211 and 212 said she feels "completely taken advantage of, having to spend over $250 for these unnecessary programs." 

"As a student who receives no financial aid or help from my parents, the economics department has taken advantage of me by forcing me to buy the Cengage program," she said. "It was no additional help other than turning in homework." 

Harris said she ultimately made it through the class without even using the textbook.

"I honestly don’t feel like the class needs a textbook," she said. "I passed without using it at all. I think that with the types of homework that teachers are assigning, they don’t even need MindTap ... When we are already paying $400+ for a class, an additional $130 is a huge stressor," Harris said.


Reach the reporter at isaac.windes@asu.edu or follow @isaacdwindes on Twitter.

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