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Faculty union officials in California worry professors who agree to teach free online classes could undermine faculty intellectual property rights and collective bargaining agreements.

The union for faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz said earlier this month it could seek a new round of collective bargaining after several professors agreed to teach classes on Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based provider of popular massive open online classes, or MOOCs.

The Santa Cruz Faculty Association's concern highlights an emerging tension as professors begin to teach MOOCs and, in turn, become academic stars to tens of thousands of students who sign up for the free classes. Santa Cruz is the only UC campus to have a unionized tenure-track faculty, so the exchange there is perhaps unique, but the issues there are not.

The union said the professors lobbied for a 12-year-old California law to guarantee that faculty -- not universities -- own the intellectual property rights to class lectures and course materials. But before professors can have their courses put on Coursera, they are expected to sign away those rights to the university so the university can give the professors’ work to Coursera, the union said in a March 5 letter to a top labor relations official at Santa Cruz. In these waivers, professors "irrevocably grant the university the absolute right and permission to use" their course content, name, image and likeness.

The university's own contract with Coursera remains neutral and said only that rights will "remain with the applicable instructor and university."

But the union said the Coursera-related side deals between the university and the professors could be considered a change in the terms of faculty employment and arguably could prompt a new round of collective bargaining.

“These issues were not discussed with the [union], the exclusive bargaining unit for the UCSC faculty, prior to the signing of the contract between Coursera and [Santa Cruz],” Professor Shelly Errington, a union representative, wrote in the letter to Santa Cruz’s senior labor relations administrator Renée Mayne.

On March 14, Mayne replied with a letter that said Errington’s concerns were “understandable." But Mayne said the professors’ agreements to turn over their intellectual property were “strictly voluntarily” and should not force collective bargaining.

This is exactly the view of a Santa Cruz Professor emeritus, Peter Kenez, one of the four Santa Cruz professors slated to teach a Coursera class this year. He said he wants his class on the Holocaust to be seen by as many people as can watch it (Coursera has nearly three million registered users). 

“I willingly give this value to anybody who wants [it],” he said. “I like to be listened to."

Kenez said he thinks the faculty union is fighting the future of higher education, though he said the classes would not be as valuable to students as those they take in a normal classroom.

“As they say in Hungarian, it’s pissing against the wind,” Kenez said, referring to the union’s concerns about MOOCs. 

But the issue of intellectual property and MOOCs concerns officials beyond Santa Cruz, including Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, which represents 4,000 University of California instructors and librarians.

He said professors who are signing up to teach free classes could be poking holes in a shield all faculty use.

“It might be good for individual professors, but people have to look at the larger implications on a systematic or structural level,” Samuels said. “The larger implications are questions about intellectual property rights, about shared governance, about public funding.”

California has become a sort of ground zero for the colliding orbits of traditional campuses and outside companies. Last week, California lawmakers detailed a plan to require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for low-cost online courses offered by outside groups, including classes offered by for-profit companies, including Coursera.

Coursera, for its part, believes the issue is between faculty and administrators. 

"Contract components are often discussed between Coursera and universities, and there are different versions of contracts," company co-founder Daphne Koller said in a statement. "Coursera is always happy to revise elements of the contract, if such changes better reflect university policies and are to the benefit of universities and professors."

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