Academic senate leaders from California’s three higher education systems uniformly oppose an effort to require public colleges to award credit for work done by students in online programs unaffiliated with their colleges, including course offerings from unaccredited, for-profit providers.
The plan, designed to reduce overcrowding, is the brainchild of a top state lawmaker, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. His effort this month immediately captured attention in and outside of higher education circles, among pundits and politicians across the country.
Faculty reaction has been mixed from the start. The University of California’s academic senate expressed “grave concerns.” The union for California State University instructors pledged to work with Steinberg.
Now, faculty opposition appears to be hardening. Academic senate leaders from all three public higher ed systems – UC, Cal State and the California Community Colleges -- now outright oppose the efforts, though their full senates have yet to take formal votes. About 15 faculty leaders from the three systems gave an earful Tuesday to Steinberg aide Mufaddal Ezzy during a meeting at a UC building a block from the state capitol building.
The joint and now outright opposition by the so-called Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senates represents a new milestone for Steinberg's closely watched effort.
The academic leaders’ concerns are numerous.
In particular, faculty representatives are concerned California lawmakers are preparing to hand over untold thousands of students to for-profit companies that have not proven their courses can pass muster.
“It is unclear as to why it would be appropriate to market the courses of third parties to our students,” said Michelle Pilati, president of the statewide Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. She participated in Tuesday's meeting.
Some of the companies that could benefit from Steinberg’s plan are unaccredited online course providers, including Coursera, StraighterLine and Udacity.
In a letter earlier this month, UC's Academic Senate said the "clear self-interest of for-profit corporations in promoting the privatization of public higher education through this legislation is dismaying."
Steinberg’s goal is to guarantee students access to much-needed courses, particularly lower division general education courses that tend to fill quickly. Community college students, in particular, have suffered from this problem, which is tied to the state’s budget woes. About 500,000 community college students have been turned away during the state's prolonged budget crisis.
Pilati said these students do need greater access, but the state should invest in the public college system, not shoo students away into third-party offerings. “Students are not looking for a pathway to unit accumulation; they want to register for courses,” she said. “We're more than capable of serving our students.”
Under Steinberg's plan, a nine-member council of faculty members would decide which courses should make the cut for a pool of online offerings, which is to include 50 of the most oversubscribed classes.
That's a small number of faculty for a large number of courses and almost guarantees some faculty members will be forced to sign off on courses in subjects they know little about, said Diana Guerin, the chair of the Cal State Academic Senate.
“They are not going to have the disciplinary expertise to do that,” Guerin, who participated in Tuesday's meeting, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We do not have faculty with expertise when we have nine faculty, right?”
Rhys Williams, a Steinberg spokesman, said from the senator’s perspective the discussions have been productive, but he said a play-by-play account of meetings “gets in the way of good policy making.”
“All sides have set up camp publicly and that’s a good place to start a discussion, but offering a running commentary and disagreements through the press will only send everyone into their corners, in trench position,” he said.
Williams also disputed the notion that faculty would not have the opportunity to offer rigorous assessments of outside courses before the courses are placed into the pool.
“I think the bill as it is addresses their concerns,” he said.
Steinberg's plan has yet to be formally introduced as legislation, but a March 8 draft of the bill does not provide all of the protections the senator said it did during a press conference announcing his effort.
During the press conference, Steinberg said, “The only courses that can be certified [and placed in the pool], in fact, are those courses that students cannot get into and only if the university itself or the college campus or community college is not offering an online alternative already."
But that's not what the early draft says. It says a course can be certified if “during most academic terms, the number of students seeking to enroll in the course exceeds the number of spaces available.” There is nothing that says students must be unable to enroll in a specific on-campus class before they can enroll online.
Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund said that language is indeed broader than the senator’s own description but also subject to change.
Hedlund said, “the pro tem has been clear the online courses will supplement and not supplant courses currently available, and that students would only be able to avail themselves of online offerings if there are no seats available. We are early in the process and we will be clarifying these types of issues as we move forward.”
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