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Orfalea course draws complaints

A group of faculty members at Cal Poly’s College of Business says its top administrator overstepped his bounds by allowing multimillion dollar donor Paul Orfalea to teach a course offered only to high-achieving students and without the knowledge of many accredited instructors.

Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s chain of office-service stores, was asked by Dean Dave Christy to teach an international business course in the fall in which 25 top-tier business students were chosen to participate and share in catered meals.

International and Cross-Cultural Management 302 was an unusual offering at Cal Poly, Christy acknowledged Monday. He said Orfalea was a natural choice given his background operating a global company and negotiating contracts worldwide, and that it was a great opportunity for students.

“I’d be remiss as a dean to have students pass up this opportunity in their college career,” Christy said.

But some faculty members question the decision to bring Orfalea into the classroom. In 2001, Orfalea, a graduate of USC, donated $15 million in company stock to the college, which was renamed the Orfalea College of Business in honor of his parents.

Critics of the course taught by Orfalea contend that he was not qualified to teach a class that’s required for students with a concentration in international business.

There were no written exams or texts used in the course, and in some instances simple quizzes were given which students were asked to locate countries on a map. The quizzes some students turned in had misspellings, including Bang-kok, the capital of Thailand.

Orfalea and Christy, however, defended the way the course was taught. Christy attended Orfalea’s sessions in which the students were assigned to read and analyze news articles and inspired to think critically about global issues.

Orfalea, who responded to e-mail questions from The Tribune, said he often asked pointed questions of students, all of whom received A’s. He has been a guest lecturer at Cal Poly in the past and has taught at UCSB, USC and Loyola Marymount University.

“My course is rigorous in that students are required to speak up and participate,” said Orfalea, who was not paid to teach the Cal Poly class. “Most students can go through all four years of college without ever raising their hand to ask a question,” he said.

Lack of information

Some business faculty members are angry because they say they were not informed about the move to invite Orfalea to teach the course, and that the College of Business should have hired lecturer Jere Ramsey, whose specialty is international business, to teach the class.

Colette Frayne, an international business professor, said she wasn’t aware of Orfalea’s class until midway through the quarter, when she learned about it from a student who was upset that some students received special treatment.

“My big question in all of this is that if it were on the up and up, why didn’t the faculty find out about this class until after it already was in progress?” Frayne said. “I’m upset that the faculty was not told about this and that we weren’t given an opportunity to meet and discuss it as a group.”

Christy said the course met for four hours once a week on Tuesday nights and wasn’t listed as part of the college’s publication of course offerings because it was open to some students by special invitation.

The class also featured regular guest speakers, and the students were assigned to interview and present them to the class, said sophomore Adam Jackson, who was enrolled in the class.

Faculty members were made aware of Orfalea’s plan to teach at a faculty gathering in the spring, Christy said. After faculty complained about the course, he offered to meet individually with those who had expressed concern.

Frayne and other faculty say they do not recall an open invitation by Christy to discuss the class in the spring.

Responding to allegations that students would get an A for participating, Christy said that “these are students with GPAs of 3.65 and up, or somewhere around there, and they probably would get A’s anyway.”Christy added: “A lot of faculty members with students doing senior projects or independent projects give their students A’s.”

Cal Poly’s academic senate is investigating what happened and whether any violations of the formal curriculum procedures may have occurred, said Unny Menon, an academic senator.

Menon said the senate plays an advisory role and gives input to the dean, university president or provost about how to proceed.

Compensation agreed

In addition to complaints about the way the course was taught, some faculty members also have alleged that Christy mismanaged money allocated toward the course, spending it on catered meals and not paying those whom they say had a right to teach the class.

Ramsey, an international business lecturer, said she deserved to teach the course under union contract, and she filed a grievance with the university last year to receive the amount she would have gotten had she taught Orfalea’s class.

She received $5,000 in a settlement late last year.

Christy points out that the settlement was a no-fault agreement and that no one is to blame.

“We did agree to compensate her for the class,” Christy said. “In that agreement, it was determined that nobody did anything incorrectly.”

Mike Stebbins, a retired professor who had tenure at the university, also was paid for teaching the class, although he did not help Orfalea teach the course or show up for any of the sessions.

Christy, who did not recall how much Stebbins was paid, made the decision to pay the retired professor under the union’s contractual agreement with the university.

The catered meals were paid for with donor funds, Christy said.

While Christy called the course an “atypical situation,” he said the class was worth it for the students and the College of Business.

“This was an extraordinary experience for them,” Christy said.

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