The largest public university system in the United States is finally realizing a vision of a centralized online hub -- but is doing so in a relatively contained way, at least at the start.
The California State University System is announcing today  that Cal State Online will begin offering classes in January, in partnership with Pearson. The 23 campuses in the system have offered virtual courses for years, but unlike numerous other public university systems in the country -- see Penn State World Campus and UMass Online -- Cal State has been slow to coordinate those offerings in a centralized way.
As is true for many things at Cal State, discussions about moving online aggressively have been challenged by a faculty that champions itself as a guardian of quality, but that some critics portray as an impediment to progress.
Two years ago,  already battered by budget cuts and facing what portended (and have proven) to be years of additional ones, the system began exploring the creation of a hub it called Cal State Online. The system's faculty union, the California Faculty Association, bristled at the initiative , saying that the plan to work with for-profit partners would undermine Cal State's public mission and that centralizing online programs would put the system in competition with the campuses.
System leaders, however, insisted that an advisory board  that included faculty members as well as administrators and students would ensure that the effort supported rather than undermined  key missions of the institution. In March, when Cal State officials unveiled more details about the effort and introduced a new executive director, many faculty members remained skeptical ; Teri Yamada, professor of Asian studies at California State University at Long Beach and a faculty union leader, said in an e-mail message at the time: “We have no confidence, based upon past mismanagement of our administration that such an expansive enterprise would be carried out without harm to the rest of the institution.”
Jim Postma, a professor of chemistry at California State University at Chico and, as former chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, a member of Cal State Online's advisory board, said he believed that he and fellow professors on the board had helped to shape the effort in ways that will protect the interests of professors and campuses. By ensuring that all of Cal State Online's programs are designed and approved on the system's campuses, "we ensure that we're not going to create programs that won't be connected to a faculty and to the quality-control mechanisms we have in place," Postma said.
By starting with existing programs that have already earned the stamp of approval from campus faculties, he said, Cal State Online can get off the ground with proven commodities.
And faculty members pushed to ensure that any for-profit partner with which the system worked -- in this case, Pearson -- would commit to protecting the academic freedom of instructors, by not insisting that they use the provider's content. "Pearson came up clean when we talked to current customers about different vendors," Postma said.
At least some faculty critics appear to have been won over, at least tentatively. In an interview Tuesday, Yamada, the Long Beach professor, said she was pleased that Cal State was "starting out slowly and cautiously" in its move online, focusing on audiences -- military service members and adult students who have previously accumulated at least 40 credits at Cal State (an initiative called "Reconnect" ) -- that inarguably need better access to Cal State.
She also said she had been persuaded that for Ruth Claire Black, the executive director of Cal State Online, "the let's-help-students aspect of this is totally genuine. They're not the enemy."
John Welty, president of California State University at Fresno and chair of Cal State Online's board, agreed Tuesday that "our thorough and deliberative process has paid off" in easing concerns about the online effort. "There's a sense that we've thought through a number of the issues, and there are a number of champions on the faculty who believe this can work."
Not everyone has been sold. Steve Filling, a professor of business ethics at California State University at Stanislaus and vice chair of the statewide Academic Senate, said he remains "perplexed" about exactly where Cal State Online is heading, what its business plan is, and how a centralized structure will strengthen a collection of existing online programs (like an M.B.A. program at his campus) that are functioning as-is. "They talk about added value from centralized marketing, but since these are programs that are already up and running, presumably we've already figured out how to market them," Filling said. "So what are we paying for?"
Filling also said he remains concerned that ultimately, the system will look to Cal State Online to enroll and educate students whose access to a Cal State education has been derailed by state budget cuts. Yes, system officials have insisted that's not their goal, he said -- "but all we have to go on at this point are carefully crafted press statements. We just don't know where this is really heading."
Welty said that he understands the skepticism, and that all Cal State Online can do for now is educate its initial students as well as possible. "We've targeted how we're going to start, and we need to make sure that as we get started, what we're doing is of high quality. There is sometimes a tendency to try to do everything, and what happens is you get nothing done."