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University Of California President: Regents May Revoke Faculty Senate’s Authority Over Online Degree Policy

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission

In October, Michael V. Drake, President of the University of California (UC) system, told the Academic Council of the Academic Senate that members of the Board of Regents opposed a policy the Senate adopted earlier this year.

According to the minutes of that meeting and those in attendance, Drake reminded Senators that, “while the Regents have delegated various decision-making authorities to the president, Senate, and other parties, the Regents still possess ultimate decision-making authority.” He then told the faculty leaders that, “unless the Senate finds a way to address Regents’ concerns in this regard, they may revoke the Senate’s authority.”

Whether that was a threat or a warning may depend on which side of the table you’re on.

Even if it was only a warning, Drake’s message and the stance of some Regents was a serious, consequential, and confrontational escalation – casting a shadow on the accepted and settled arrangement that those who do the teaching are the academic experts. Even more seriously, it threatens the spirit of shared governance that guides one of the country’s largest and most respected public university systems.

The policy that angered some of the Regents and triggered the “revoke the Senate’s authority” statement is known as the “campus experience requirement.” Approved by the Senate in February, it mandates that undergraduate degree-seeking students in the California system complete at least some of their coursework on a campus – just 10% of coursework for 4-year students and 20% for students who transfer. Though majors and graduate programs could still be entirely online, and professors or programs could request a waiver from the systemwide Senate, the policy essentially closed off the potential for fully online degrees in the University of California system.

“I was saddened to hear that some of the Regents would consider overriding the Faculty Senate as retaliation for requiring that fully online degree programs be reviewed,” said the Chair of the UC University Committee on Educational Policy, Melanie Cocco, who was instrumental in creating the on-campus requirements. Cocco is a professor of molecular biology at UC, Irvine and continued, “The change was implemented to protect the accreditation of UC degrees. Prior to the approval of changes, any administrator could take an existing in-person degree program and move it to be fully online without Faculty Senate approval. Now, fully online degrees must be reviewed at the Systemwide Senate level.”

The Senate has many good reasons to go slow on fully online degrees. One is that, despite what anyone tells you, the science and research on online college programs is not settled. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that delivering education material online is detrimental to some students, perhaps even most students.

In debate over the proposal, faculty acknowledged that online degrees could expand access to the system. But they also raised concerns about creating a two-tier degree scheme in which one group of students could access valuable on-campus resources, networks, social activities, and support programs and another group couldn’t. According to the minutes of the debate, faculty were also worried that “online degrees could affect the quality of the educational experience and could marginalize students.”

And though it was not referenced directly, reputational quality was probably a consideration too.

Most predatory and debt-producing for-profit colleges offer online degree programs nearly exclusively. For example, a 2019 report from The Brookings Institution found that nearly a quarter (22%) of all students who are trying to get on-line undergraduate degrees attend for-profit colleges, even though those schools represent only about 6% of total students.

Some lower-market non-profit schools have also used online degrees to catapult themselves into the realm of high volume, mega-schools. One, Southern New Hampshire University, is among the fastest growing and largest schools in the country. Ninety-eight percent of its students study online and its President has famously described their degrees as “the Honda Accord” of academic programs – inexpensive, basic, reliable, and predictable.

As the home to name brand schools such as UCLA, UC Davis, and Berkeley, leaders in the California system don’t see themselves as selling Hondas. And it’s hard to blame them for being reluctant to be in the same business.

Still, there’s the access. More people can access things if they’re online. And access to education is good.

Then there’s the money. Access equals enrollment, and enrollment equals cash. Online college can be very profitable, which is why most for-profit colleges rely on them. If schools assign non-tenure, contract teachers, and stick to the pre-printed materials and assessments from textbook publishers, which is common in online courses, they can be very, very profitable.

But, as the UC Senate correctly diagnosed, the tradeoff is quality and reputation versus access and cash – Walmart versus Bloomingdales.

Still, at least a few California Regents are heavily on the access and profit side of the ledger enough to threaten to override their own teachers and upend the principle of shared governance.

The President’s Office declined to make any Regents available for comment on this issue. And although she did not respond to several direct requests to be interviewed, or accept opportunities to comment, system insiders say Regent Maria Aguilano is one of the leading advocates for online degrees and one of the Regents who was very likely “concerned” about the February policy.

Aguilano is the Executive Vice President of ASU Learning Enterprise. The ASU is Arizona State University, which has been a vocal advocate for digital and online programs for years. ASU has one of the largest online enrollments in the country and at one point had projected to make as much as $500 million a year from its online programs by 2025.

The ASU Learning Enterprise, which Aguilano helps lead, is committed to creating “universal access” to education resources and Aguilano has described the organization as pushing to “break the rigid and linear design of the traditional education system.” In one example highlighted by the Learning Enterprise, ASU recently launched a series of for-credit courses on YouTube. In October, Aguilano joined an online panel with the partial subject, “Education leaders and policymakers support the expansion of online education, but opposition to this mode of learning stifles progress.”

Lark Park, another Regent, is also supportive of opening California’s public universities to fully online learning. Like Aguilano, Park did not respond to interview requests or offers to provide a statement.

Park is the Director of the state-funded Cal Ed Learning Lab, which she has described as being born from a conversation about online learning and has written in support of expanding digital and Internet-based programs. Also in October, Park contributed to an advocacy paper titled “Reimagining Online Education in California.” The paper called out the University’s ban on online degrees directly, saying, “despite the rising demand and use of online education … stakeholders continue to raise concerns about this mode of learning in California. Examples include the University of California’s (UC) ban of fully online degrees.” The paper then asked, “Why is there such reluctance to engage in and friction about a high-demand avenue” of online education?

Unsurprisingly, completion rates for online students significantly lag those for students who go to class on a campus. In ASU’s online programs, federal data show that less than half the students (47%) graduate within eight years, 11% below the national average. For students who start their education at ASU online, now called Arizona State Digital Emersion, the eight-year graduation rate is just 18%. Thirty-eight percent drop out.

For comparison, in the UC system, Berkeley has a graduation rate of 94%, and only 2% dropped out. The graduation rate at UCLA is 92%, and most UC campuses have completion and graduation rates well above 80%. Even the campuses that primarily service disadvantaged communities regularly graduate at least 70% of their students.

Again, the faculty have good reasons to be concerned about opening their doors to fully online programs, especially without oversight. Not only are their names on the courses, the Regents themselves delegated this authority to them. Official UC policy says, “The Regents recognize that faculty participation in the shared governance of the University of California through the agency of the Academic Senate ensures the quality of instruction, research and public service at the University.” And that, “The Academic Senate shall authorize and supervise all courses and curricula.”

By pushing the President to raise the specter of usurping the role of faculty over a 10% on-campus requirement and program reviews, the concept that “the Academic Senate ensures quality of instruction” clearly has an unwritten caveat in California – that is, unless the Regents disagree. Which should make you wonder what good it is to be empowered to “authorize and supervise all courses and curricula” if your expertise can be overruled at the pleasure of the Regents.

President Drake’s office confirmed that his message about revocation was not universal, that it applied only to the decision regarding online degrees. That may be reassuring, but it also may not matter. Once Regents start picking and choosing the academic policies they want to set themselves, governance isn’t exactly shared. It’s conditional. At best.

Drake’s office also offered the following statement, “The University of California is deeply committed to our system of shared governance and to the role of the Regents, Academic Senate, faculty members, and administrators in upholding the University’s excellence. Shared governance, including the Academic Senate, has always been and will continue to be an essential pillar of the successful operation and management of the University. The Regents, the Academic Senate, and other University leaders are currently working together to define and 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.”

Professor Cocco also said, “Several of the Regents clearly do not want Systemwide review of fully online degrees. Those who are advancing fully online degrees have not addressed problems of academic integrity or the lack of campus benefits like healthcare, on-campus housing and meals, mental health counseling, access to a gym and, most significantly, development of social and professional skills that come with meeting professors and other students in person.” Continuing, “It appears that some universities are using these programs for revenue generation without regard for student outcomes,” she said.

Some schools definitely are doing exactly that. The question is whether Regents will succeed in making the University of California system one of them.

Originally posted on Forbes on December 14, 2023.