Why I Left a University to join an Internet Education Company

Why I Left a University to join an Internet Education Company – personal account

Geoffrey M. Cox

I find much of life’s wisdom captured in New Yorker cartoons. This past summer, while contemplating a move from a senior position at Stanford University to become provost of Cardean University and vice president of Unext.com, its parent company, I felt a particular affinity for one such cartoon. The scene is a fortuneteller’s table, with a woman looking into a crystal ball. Her client, who is dressed in a clown suit, is clearly astonished by the prediction he is hearing. The caption reads, “You will run away from the circus and join a dot-com.”

Given my career so far in the service of two traditional, elite research universities, my decision to join a new kind of educational enterprise calls for some explanation–at least to myself! I do feel a bit like the man in the clown suit, but I regard my move as less surprising than it might seem on the surface. I am convinced that the values and aspirations of Unext are consistent with the traditions of higher education I have been committed to throughout my career. This is a story of continuity as much as change, both for me personally and for higher education in general.

Unext.com will offer online courses derived from faculty in cooperation with traditional universities, leading eventually to full degree programs offered through Cardean University. This is a new approach to higher education, to be sure, and one that is still largely untested. Yet, the history of higher education tells us that new institutional forms have arisen repeatedly over the past 200 years, especially in this country. As I reflect upon the three institutions that I know best from personal experience–Knox College, The University of Chicago, and Stanford University–I see patterns that may foretell the prospects for my new, virtual university. I view the emergence of institutions such as Unext as being not only consistent with but necessary for the growth and development of higher education.

My own background in higher education–as student, teacher, and administrator–has been spent at institutions that seem traditional today, but were each highly innovative at the time of their founding. It is instructive to reflect on the origins of each of these institutions, as well as on some the environmental pressures that helped mold them into the kinds of places they are today. Each of these institutions, in turn, shaped me and led to my decision to join a new kind of educational venture.


For my undergraduate education I enrolled in Knox College, in my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. Knox is one of those small liberal arts colleges founded during a great burst of institution building that accompanied the westward expansion of the young nation in the 19th century. As Henry Riggs, president of the Keck Graduate Institute points out, during the 85 years between the Declaration of Independence and the Civil war, some 800 new colleges were founded in this country. Most of these were free standing baccalaureate colleges, a type of institution that remains uniquely American. This new kind of institution was designed to fit the time and place of its creation. The undergraduate college took the core of higher education as it existed in the older colleges of the East and of Europe, leaving only the essentials necessary for a broad education for general citizenship. These colleges did not offer graduate studies and did not emphasize the departmental structures or the intense specialization that go with a research-intensive university. These institutions were of a size and scale that could be created by a group of private individuals–not requiring great fortunes or state support. They could be established quickly with a few faculty members and sustained through student fees. The model was widely replicated in cities and towns throughout the country.

After the Civil War, a second great expansion of educational institutions occurred with the advent of the land-grant universities. This second expansion led to what today we would call a shakeout of the industry. By 1900, only 180 of those first 800 small colleges remained active; larger, subsidized state institutions consumed market share by offering more educational services, subsidized prices, and often more pragmatic and career-oriented curricula. Competition always has been a powerful force in shaping higher education in this country, a lesson we forget at our peril.

To return to Knox, it is a college with a particularly interesting history. It was founded by a group from upstate New York that was determined to keep the new state of Illinois free from slavery. Galesburg, the town that grew up around the college, became an important center of the Abolitionist movement, a hub on the Underground Railroad, and one of the communities that helped propel Abraham Lincoln to the White House. It has always seemed interesting to me that the means by which these social activists chose to further their cause was establishing a college. Not a church (though of course they built churches), not a utopian community (of which there were many in those days), not a bank or a militia, but an educational institution.

I am not sure the founders of Knox were explicit about the connection they saw between education and freedom, but they understood it intuitively. In the best Enlightenment tradition of Rousseau, Kant, and Jefferson, they believed that the most basic of human characteristics–the ability to reason and learn–is the basis on which fundamental human rights are afforded. The autonomy and freedom of the individual is grounded in his or her ability to reason. Colleges are built to nurture the talent of reasoning as no other institutions are, and thus they uniquely serve to promote progressive ideals for human communities.

The founders of Knox believed that both freedom and education should be extended to all members of society. In 1870, a Knox alumnus, Hiram Rhodes Revels, was elected to the Mississippi Senate seat Jefferson Davis had occupied before the Civil War. His election marked an important turning point for the nation, as well as a stunning tribute to the vision of Knox’s founders, because Revels was the first African American to serve in the Congress. After his term in the Senate, Revels returned to Mississippi and became the founding president of Alcorn State University, the first land-grant college in the United States for black students, where he continued the effort to expand educational opportunities widely.

In college, I decided to major in philosophy for reasons that seemed sound from an academic perspective, if not from a practical one. Philosophy presented the most intellectual challenge of any discipline I could imagine. It sits at the crossroads of religion, politics, and ethics and therefore deals ostensibly with the most fundamental issues facing human beings. I had no thought of my future, of jobs, or of anything at all practical. I took to heart Plato’s subversive critique of all things material; I relished the freedom from rigorous methodologies, I loved the sport of argument and, above all else, I delighted in sounding mysteriously intellectual. Words like “teleology” and “epiphenomenalism” became part of my everyday vocabulary.

The longer I was in college, the more I seemed to appreciate it, so much that when it came time to graduate, I was interested only in more of the same. I went to the University of Chicago to pursue a PhD in philosophy, convinced that the greatest good I could accomplish would be to transmit my enthusiasm for intellectual pursuits to others, just as my college instructors had done for me.


Chicago tends to inspire a particular brand of loyalty and reverence among its graduates. The U of C prides itself on being the most serious, no-nonsense, hardworking university on the planet. There, the “life of the mind” is the only life that matters. It is a place where students spend Saturday nights in the library, where passionate debates are heard on every street corner, and where many of the familiar trappings of modern university life (most famously, football) are disdained.

The University of Chicago also represents the third great wave of new educational forms that arose in the 19th century. Toward the end of the century, it became fashionable for wealthy individuals to endow private institutions as full-fledged universities. John D. Rockefeller devoted some of his vast fortune to founding Chicago. At about the same time, wealthy estates were used to create Johns Hopkins, Washington University, Carnegie (now Carnegie Mellon), Vanderbilt, Rice, and Stanford, among others. Just as the land-grant institutions had done a few years before, these new private institutions raised the competitive stakes yet again as they used their wealth to attract students and faculty from older, established institutions. Chicago opened its doors with nine former college and university presidents on its faculty; and its recruiting raids decimated the faculties of several other schools.

Chicago’s original financial backers hoped to create a good university to serve the new Western edge of the country, of which the city of Chicago was rapidly becoming the de facto capital. William Rainey Harper, the first president of the university, had more ambitious plans. He insisted that the institution open as a world-class graduate university, complete with faculty and facilities spread across a full range of disciplines. He imported wholesale the traditions and trappings of a venerable European university. Cambridge inspired the architecture, while Berlin inspired the pedagogy and faculty structure. But in the translation to this hemisphere, Harper and a group of founding presidents at other institutions (notably Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins) were creating a new institutional form.

Unlike the public universities of Europe and the older private universities in the Eastern United States, whose purposes were largely to cater to the elite, the new privately endowed universities of America welcomed students based on ability and desire rather than pedigree. Most were co-educational, many welcomed minority students, and all of them had populist orientations. They all sought to create educational opportunities of the highest quality for students who otherwise lacked access to any form of advanced education.

Within a few years Chicago, fueled by ambition, imagination, and access to capital, stood as an equal to institutions that had grown and developed over centuries. A founding member of the Chicago faculty, Albert Michelson, won the first Nobel Prize awarded to an American, heading a long line of subsequent laureates associated with the university. Right from the start, Chicago’s reach was international. Indeed, the first PhD awarded by the new university went to a Japanese citizen who had traveled to the new school to study Hebrew with Harper. The early and rapid rise of the university was extraordinary. No one could have predicted that Chicago would have had as much influence or prestige as it quickly gained. On the contrary, most observers confidently thought its founders were throwing away their money.

At Chicago, I learned that the life of the mind does not consist of passing courses and earning degrees; rather it is about thinking, struggling with ideas and concepts, about learning to articulate thoughts, and opening one’s self to constructive challenge and debate. Socrates understood that a person cannot learn without engaging in this process, and so has every great teacher since. It is by learning to teach that I came to appreciate these truths most clearly. For all of the time I spent in classes as a student, I learned the most as part of the teaching staff of the famous Humanities Common Core. There I met weekly with great teachers to debate, to investigate, and to challenge each other to deeper understandings of the texts we were teaching. From those meetings, we would go to our classes and try to ignite in our undergraduates the same excitement we had felt in our staff meetings.

For reasons of financial necessity, I worked nearly full-time while I was in graduate school in administrative positions of increasing responsibility. I had wonderful mentors on the administrative side as well as on the academic side. At one point in my administrative career I was given the job of evaluating Chicago’s Continuing Studies department, a unit that had fallen on rather hard times and was on the verge of being closed.

The Continuing Studies unit had been part of Harper’s founding vision for the university. It, along with the University Press, was the dissemination arm of the university. The work of the faculty, Harper thought, would reach the world through the printed word, through full-time, on-campus students, and through part-time extension students (including large numbers of correspondence students). I have often thought that this approach to creating and distributing knowledge mirrored Rockefeller’s vertical monopoly in the oil business. Here was a powerful new style of industrial organization adapted to the mission of an educational institution.

My work with Continuing Studies opened my eyes to the intellectual excitement that is possible even when many of the trappings of modem university life are stripped away. Nothing more than a desire to learn motivated the adults who came to study in our downtown classrooms on weekday evenings. They did not receive credit; they had nothing to prove to their parents or others; they were not likely to move to better jobs as a result of their courses; they were not fulfilling requirements for some other course; they certainly did not have the benefits of a campus atmosphere. Still, they engaged in their courses with more dedication and fervor than I had seen in a traditional classroom.

The Continuing Studies classroom, it seems to me, comes closer to the Socratic ideal of education than any other formal setting I’ve known. I’ve long thought that adults who return to university study are, in many cases, better motivated and better prepared for this kind of work than students of traditional college age. One faculty colleague, who had experience teaching both traditional college-age students and adults, once said to me that “teaching King Lear to 1 8-year-olds is a waste of time; they simply have no concept of mortality.” While I would not go so far as to say that the undergraduate experience is a waste of time, I do believe that teaching similar material to adults brings quite a different meaning to the experience for both student and teacher.

Fortunately, the Continuing Education program rebounded at Chicago, and has since been reinvigorated with a substantial endowment gift. Today it is known as the Graham School of General Studies and occupies a wonderful new facility in the heart of downtown Chicago.


After 15 years at Chicago I was invited to join the administration at Stanford University. Stanford, like Chicago, owes its founding to a great Industrial Age fortune. Governor Stanford and his wife built their university in honor of their only son, who died at young age. In their memorable words, they wanted to do for “other people’s sons and daughters” what they could no longer do for their own. Like the combination of Rockefeller and Harper, the combination of efforts by the Stanfords (Jane Stanford, really) and founding president David Starr Jordan proved a potent mix of ambition, vision, and courage.

The Stanfords’ idea for their new university was less rarified than that of Harper’s Chicago. They deliberately avoided some of the symbols of older universities–no ivied walls, no gothic architecture. Their university was to capture the spirit of its surroundings–large, bold, egalitarian, creatively new and open. They saw themselves training a new and growing population of students who-because of sheer distance– would not have access to the old campuses of the East, yet who desperately needed higher education to build California and the new West.

The Founding Grant put it plainly: the object of the university is “to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” For the Standfords, education was above all a means for individual and social advancement. Their university, they said, was committed to “keeping open an avenue whereby the deserving and exceptional may rise through their own efforts from the lowest to the highest station in life.”

As much as they wanted to break with some traditions of the old-line universities, many of the core values they instilled in their new enterprise came from the best academic traditions. The university sought to create a synthesis between higher learning and the more practical skills that would be required to bring the West into full partnership with the Eastern part of the country. Jordan, a distinguished scientist himself, argued that higher education should not be thought of as merely intellectual and esoteric, but rather as the most practical kind of education one can have, He wrote:

A practical education is one which can be made effective in life. We often abuse the word practical by making it synonymous with temporary or superficial. It should mean just the opposite. An education which takes but little time and less effort, and leads at once to a paying situation, is not practical. It is not good, because it will never lead to anything better. There is nothing more practical than knowledge, nothing more unpractical than ignorance.

Jordan wrote this long before anyone ever coined such phrases as “knowledge economy” or “knowledge workers,” yet I know of no more succinct justification for the value of education for the individual as well as for the larger economy.

Stanford’s early history reinforces another recurring theme in my story: the expansion of access and the nurturing of talent from unlikely places that leads to extraordinary results sooner than expected. Stanford’s very first class included a young man from the wilds of Iowa who would go on to become one of the leading public servants of his time. Not only did Herbert Hoover serve as president, he also led the recovery efforts in Europe after both world wars. It did not take an institution with hundreds of years of history to produce such a distinguished alumnus.

While Stanford dates back to the turn of the century, an even more interesting story unfolds about 50 years later with the beginning of the technology boom that we now associate with Silicon Valley. At the end of World War II, Provost Frederick Terman led what amounted to a second founding of Stanford. With the advent of large-scale government financing for research, the excess resources left at the end of the war (talented engineers, a newly developed industrial complex), and a burgeoning economy, Terman pushed Stanford to the forefront of research institutions with new faculty recruitments and investments. At the same time, he lowered the traditional boundaries and suspicions between the university and the corporate community, thus creating the conditions for highly effective technology transfer and the creation of industries built from new scientific discoveries. Stanford went from being a solid, regional institution to a world-class research institution and an engine for economic growth.

In this process, Stanford became a model for yet another evolution in institutional type. The relatively new idea that universities, together with government and industry, are a source of economic development owes much to the Stanford example. No other institution set out so deliberately and so aggressively to recreate itself along these lines. Within less than 50 years, Stanford has become the model that many other universities and governments try to emulate.

Stanford today remains unusual among universities in the extent to which it is open to the surrounding world. It thrives on its associations with the technical and business communities of Silicon Valley, with government, and with the international community. It encourages outward engagement, whether in the form of business, public service, or–to return to my central theme–external education. For more than 30 years, Stanford has been providing selected courses via television and the Internet to students located far from campus.

Data drawn from these programs show that distance education works. We know from substantial experience that under the right conditions, not only is distance education comparable in quality to traditional education, but in some cases it is more effective. The conditions are important; students must be capable, highly motivated, and familiar with enough background to be ready to receive new ideas and knowledge. They must have good coaching, though not necessarily “teaching.” They must have the opportunity to interact with each other. When these conditions are met, learning takes place.


Now let me try to draw together some of these lessons and look ahead. There is often a tendency to think of the world of higher education as static, unchanging, and tradition-bound. We think of colleges and universities as being separated from the social forces around them, immune from economic, technical, or political changes. We usually think of them as being homogenous–all cut from the same cloth. We do not think of them as being competitive or exposed to risk. But, in fact, as I have tried to show from the three examples I know best, none of these images is true. The history of higher education is as colorful, dynamic, and diverse as that of any other set of organizations in our society.

It is often observed that the United States has the strongest higher education system in the world. Surely this is due, in large part, to the constant experimentation that goes on with respect to institutional forms, curricula, and teaching methods. The past 200 years have witnessed a Cambrian Explosion of institutional types: liberal arts colleges, technical schools, community colleges, religious colleges, state universities, correspondence schools, research universities, and specialized graduate schools. Just as diverse life forms emerge and either thrive or disappear, so too have institutions of higher education. Throughout this period, institution builders took advantage of the best practices of their predecessors, but were unabashed about adapting their institutions to fit their purposes and the circumstances in which they found themselves. They built colleges and universities in unlikely places and against all odds of success. They were motivated by their own visions of educational excellence and by a desire to expand educational opportunities to new groups of students. In every case, they operated on the premise, “build it and they will come.”

It is a mistake to think that this evolution has stopped. In fact, we continue to see new higher education institutions emerge at a remarkable rate. As a member of the Senior Commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accrediting commission, I see a constant stream of institutions applying for accreditation. Some of these fledgling schools will not survive, but I am always delighted that our system of accreditation gives so many institutions the opportunity to try to do something new. Ours is not a closed system, with impassible barriers to entry. For this reason alone, we should be optimistic that our system of higher education will remain strong and innovative.

The age of the Internet and other new media forms is giving rise to a new wave of institution building, right before our eyes. Ours is an extraordinary moment in history–though not an unprecedented one. In fact, I think there are strong parallels in the kind of activity going on at the beginning of this century with those I have described at the turn of the last century. Chicago and Stanford could not have begun or thrived without radical new technologies–chiefly the railroads and telegraphy–that connected them to the rest of the educated world. It became possible to create new kinds of universities at the edge of the frontier, with one foot rooted in the traditions of the past, the other planted firmly in the new age. Today the frontier is both global and digital, and new kinds of universities are springing up at a rapid rate to continue the story of expansion and experimentation. Some will not succeed, but many undoubtedly will.

Unext and Cardean have an excellent chance to thrive, for many of the same reasons that Knox, Chicago, and Stanford did. The motivating vision for Unext is to provide educational opportunities for students who now lack access. It is inconceivable that social and economic progress can continue on a global scale without increased access to higher education. It is equally inconceivable that this need will be met through traditional colleges and universities. Scarcely one percent of the world’s population holds college degrees. Fortunately, new communication technologies are making it possible to extend the reach of our current universities in extraordinary new ways, to begin reaching the other 99 percent.

Unext is committed to building new kinds of communication and support structures that will take the best educational traditions and translate them through new, widely accessible media. Our plan is qualitatively the same as Harper’s early commitments to Chicago’s Press and extension program. Our motivation is fundamentally the same as that which inspired the founding of all three of the institutions in my story: to create new educational opportunities where none existed, and to bring serious, useful education to populations who otherwise would go without.

We will not succeed by attempting to create virtual imitations of existing institutions. Educating people online is different from educating them on campus. We do not yet fully understand how to provide effective education online or on a large scale, but there are enough promising signs to believe that it can be done with quality and integrity. We can adopt the practices transforming other industries, such as “mass customization.” We can build technologies that emphasize the best pedagogical theories, such as Problem Based Learning. Most of all, as a new institution we can focus with fresh attention on the core challenge of all educational institutions: trying to promote effective learning using the best available talent and tools.

Large-scale investment will be necessary, to be sure. Building an institution with critical mass and instant credibility is expensive and risky. Stanford and Chicago were founded with gifts of then-unprecedented magnitude (tainted, in the minds of many, by the aggressive forms of capitalism from which they were derived). Unext will rely on investment capital, and thus take on the incentive and reward structure inherent in profit-making organizations. This will create a dynamic different from that of a founding endowment, but the educational goals supported by these resources will be similar to those of a not-for-profit university. There is nothing inherent about a for-profit structure that limits an institution’s ability to provide quality education.

The establishment of Unext, as with all new institutions, requires vision and dedication. This is not a game that affords quick wins. We will need to sustain this effort over many years and steer past many barriers before we can declare success. None of the institutions in my story had certainty of success at the beginning, nor an easy path to stability. Unext will have its share of setbacks, but a continuing commitment to quality and integrity will succeed over time.

I began this article with an image drawn from a cartoon. Let me close with another image that I have always found intriguing. When I left the University of Chicago I was given as a farewell gift a framed copy of a photograph that was taken in 1902, at the decennial celebration of the university’s founding. It shows John D. Rockefeller and William Rainey Harper sitting, side by side. Rockefeller is in a top hat and tails, Harper wears a mortarboard and academic regalia. They appear as two uniquely American icons. Rockefeller was the richest man in the country, if not the world; reviled by many, feared by most; one of the most important innovators of technology and industry in his day; at once both ruthless and pious. Harper was every bit his equal in his own sphere. He was one of the most brilliant scholars of his time; a person of unbounded energy and ambition; a leader who had built a world-class university from scratch on the edge of the prairie in less than 10 years; at once both pious and ruthless. They w ere photographed on a triumphant day, when both men were near the peak of their powers. They seem to exude self-confidence and satisfaction.

I have often thought about the symbolism captured in that photograph. Harper and Rockefeller represent the confluence of education, technology and industry, of intellect and wealth, of noble aspirations and raw ambition, of innovation and courage. The picture reminds me that the creation of new educational opportunities is a noble calling that has attracted people of enormous talent and commitment in the past.

We should be as ambitious and creative as our forebears from whatever place in the spectrum of higher education institutions we operate. It is a great mission, and I am privileged to be a part of it.

Author’s Note: The author wishes to thank Professor Marylin Sutton for many helpful editorial suggestions.

Geoffrey M. Cox is vice president for academic affairs and continuing education at Unext.com and provost of Cardean University. Prior to joining Unext.com, he was vice provost and dean for institutional planning, learning technologies and extended education at Stanford University. Cox oversaw the Stanford Learning Lab, the Wallenberg Center for Global Learning, the Office of Continuing Studies and related extension programs.

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