Early last year, the University of California Academic Senate changed the system’s policies to essentially ban students from earning a fully online bachelor’s degree from any of its 10 campuses. The decision drew both internal and external criticism that the university was ignoring the potential benefits of virtual learning—and troubled some UC administrators and regents who believe the governing board must have a say in changing the institution’s degree offerings.
Late in 2023, faculty leaders and administrators at the university hatched a compromise: a 20-member presidential task force to look into the efficacy of online degree programs and evaluate instructional modalities. University leaders characterized the committee as a way to “provide for high-quality in-person, hybrid and online offerings for students, including innovations that promote engagement and learning no matter where students are located.”
While at its core the tension at UC is over the quality of online education, it is also noteworthy for what it says about the balance of power and authority in shared governance at an institution that takes that value more seriously than most. In questioning the action of the Academic Senate to bar online degrees, regents clearly believe that decisions on which academic programs the university offers, and how they are delivered, falls under the regents’ authority.
But some faculty leaders are concerned that regents and UC administrators are creeping into precarious territory, challenging the fundamental role of the faculty in setting academic requirements.
“One of my worries is you’re damaging and undermining the informed work the Senate, through its faculty, does on behalf of the university for our undergraduates,” said James Steintrager, chair of the Academic Senate.
Debates about the role of online education are not new to the University of California. With a push from then governor Jerry Brown, some university officials developed an aggressive plan in 2010 to expand UC’s online footprint that, as Inside Higher Ed described it at the time, “turned some heads—and churned some stomachs.”
“Eventually, there will be online credit-bearing courses and B.A. degrees in the so-called quality sector,” a UC working group at the time wrote in its proposal for an online pilot program. “UC should be first, as soon as possible, and our ambitions should err on the side of boldness.”
But by 2014, those grand plans had largely petered out, tamped down in part by faculty opposition.
The COVID-19 pandemic, when UC and the rest of higher education pivoted to remote education for everyone for a period of time, created a logical opportunity to look anew at the value of virtual learning. But an initial review in 2021 was postponed, Steintrager said. “We said, ‘We’re mid-pandemic, we’ve changed the way we teach, there’s a lot more data we’re gathering and at the same time, it’s hard to disaggregate that data from the effects of the pandemic. Let’s stop and come back to it in a couple years,’” he said.
The Academic Senate broached the subject again last February, when, after a period of study, it doubled down on banning fully online degrees, instituting a residency requirement where students have to be on-campus for a portion of each semester. The policy changes require students to earn a minimum of six course credits per quarter (or semester) for three quarters (or two semesters) in courses where at least half of the instruction is in person on a UC campus, according to the Senate document.
Months later, at an October meeting of the Academic Senate, UC president Dr. Michael Drake characterized the February decision as a “significant change” that needed regent approval.
The Senate was directed in November to find a way to address the regents’ concerns. Dr. Drake warned the Senate that the board could decide to revoke the Senate’s authority over online degrees.
In a statement for this article, Dr. Drake played down the potential disagreement between entities, stating shared governance is an “essential pillar of the successful operation and management of the university.”
The task force, which had its first meeting in December, includes 10 faculty members and 10 members from the administrative side, with a focus on representing as many campuses as possible. The panel may bring in consultants with “specialized expertise” should the need arise, said Steven W. Cheung, vice chair of the UC Faculty Senate.
“There’s a balance in shared governance and sometimes the boundaries move in one way or another, but this dynamic is currently somewhat fluid,” Cheung said. “It’s a concern, but I don’t get the feeling they would not permit us to do the work of a presidential task force.”
Despite the apparent tension over the role of online education, UC has continued to experiment. The university recently approved an online major in creative technologies on UC’s Santa Cruz campus. It is a two-year program, which helped it skirt the undergraduate residency requirements, though it still required a special exception vote by the Academic Senate.
“[Creative technologies] went through way more scrutiny than any in-person degree that I have witnessed,” said Jody Greene, associate campus provost for academic success at Santa Cruz. “We have a quality control built in. Why close the door to these programs when you yourself [as the academic senate] will get to decide about quality?”
Concerns about quality continue to dominate the discussion about online education at UC.
“I think I can speak for the faculty and administration when I say we are not interested in a second-rate program; it has to meet University of California system quality,” said Cheung, the task force’s co-chair. “We have experts that have been working on this issue of what constitutes UC quality, and that will be very much front and center of our discussions.”
The panel will also discuss the “undergraduate experience” broadly, which goes beyond classes and includes other facets of student life, including research opportunities, access to libraries and the gym, and socializing.
Greene and Steintrager say they are both hopeful—regardless of the ultimate adoption of online degrees—that the task force conversations will lead to evidence-based, fruitful conversations.
Once the task force makes its recommendations, the panel will present its findings to the Senate, the president’s office and the regents in early May.
“What is unsettling is we’re making decisions without looking at evidence—and as supposedly the greatest research system in the world, that doesn’t make sense to me,” Greene said. “No one wants to compromise value. No one is standing up saying, ‘Let’s cut corners to educate more students.’”