I mentioned in an earlier post that the CUNY OBD had been facing some resistance. The source of that resistance has been the CUNY University Faculty Senate–especially a few of the very loudest voices in the UFS leadership. The way I see it, there are at least two lines of reasoning for this resistance, and it’s when both of these lines overlap that the resistance is the strongest.

The first, which I expected, but which I did not expect to have as much credibility, popularity and power as I’ve seen it have in this case, is the objection to online learning generally, and fully-online degrees in particular. CUNY offers several hundred online classes, including offerings on just about every campus, and in just about every academic discipline. For almost a decade, all the serious research and literature on the subject of online learning has been clear–a good class online is at least the equal of, and sometimes superior to, a good class face-to-face. I would think that any responsible, well-informed teacher, especially in higher education, would be aware of this. But that’s apparently not the case. I’ve seen colleagues, people whose judgment I should be able to respect, trot out the same uninformed, superstitious prejudices about the subject that have already been thoroughly discredited for years. “No effective education can take place online!” “Without being in the same room, looking into the eyes, nobody can learn anything!” “There can be no humor, no personal contact, no emotion online!” “This is a cheapening of education!” I’ve been truly surprised, and truly disappointed, to read these statements. It’s been especially ironic because my primary exposure to these sentiments from UFS members, the primary means they’ve had of communicating these emotional and personal protests, has been email to a listserv. In other words, they’ve been using online communication, almost exclusively, to proclaim the ineffectiveness of online education.

Now, protests of this sort, as disappointing and surprising as they may be to me, are really not a threat–they’re so easy to disprove, so easy to discredit. They all come (obviously) from people with zero experience of teaching and learning online, and it seems that even people who agree with their conclusion (that the CUNY OBD shold not go forward), are somewhat embarassed by this kind of rhetoric. But what about those other people, the ones who claim that they do approve of online education, that an online degree can be a good thing, but that this online degree is not a good thing? Their reasoning is somewhat better informed, and much more reasonable, although it is, nonetheless, still mistaken.

This second camp, the camp that claims to support online education at the same time as they oppose the OBD, base their arguments on the origin of the plan for this degree, and the structural and University governance issues that it implies. Specifically, they object to the fact that this degree is being based in, and run through, CUNY’s School of Professional Studies. Apparently, when the SPS was founded, there was a great deal of resistance to that from the UFS (this was before my time–at least before I was really aware of these issues). They did not want a school that was separate from the campuses, that could run under the auspices of the CUNY central administration. The story is (and this is a matter of a great deal of controversy) that the UFS agreed to allow the SPS to go forward (could they have stopped it?) only with the assurance (which is not written down anywhere, but which the UFS maintains was given, and is binding) that the SPS would never grant undergraduate degrees.

But it goes beyond that. The idea for this degree, and most of the structural details (note–not the curricular or educational details–just the structural) came from the CUNY administration, specifically the (relatively new) Executive Vice Chancellor. This seems to bother the UFS most extremely–it’s a political issue, or a power issue–because their stance is that any program of this kind should be conceived and invented only by faculty, and that if the original impetus came from administration, it must be a bad thing. Connected to this are some objections to the speed at which the program is proceeding and being implemented.

I’m just as committed to faculty sovereignty as anyone else, but these arguments are actually hollow and unsupportable, because even though it was the EVC’s original idea to have this program, and she has been in charge of sheperding the process along, it’s not at all true that this is a program in which faculty members have had no say, and which faculty members would never have thought of themselves. Quite the opposite. It’s been a committee of faculty (including several UFS executive committee members) who gave the degree program its initial study and design, and it’s been faculty only, not administration, who are designing the curriculum and educational policies (I’m one of those faculty!). It’s true that the official curriculum committee (on which I serve) for the OBD does not include UFS representation…but that’s not a matter of exclusion, but of the UFS’ choice. When the curriculum committee was in formation, the UFS was asked to nominate three representatives to that committee. They declined to nominate anyone, and refused to have any involvement in the process, except to oppose it.

And that opposition has taken some very ugly and dishonest turns. There have been personal attacks on the people who are involved. There have been claims that the curriculum (which I’ll describe in another post) is educationally unsound. There have been (seemingly intentional) mischaracterizations of the field of study, and then critiques that the degree does not do what it never set out to do or promised to do.

So those are two lines–one, that an online degree is just no good, and two, that an online degree in the SPS is just no good.

In fact, I said above that the resistance is virulent when these two lines overlap–and I think that that overlap is much more frequent than is usually admitted. That is, even when people claim “I have nothing against online degrees in general, it’s just this online degree,” they’re not being fully honest (maybe not even with themselves). It does seem like for most of them, the fact that the degree is online is an issue–beyond the fact that it’s located in the SPS, or separate from the UFS, or moving ahead very quickly. It’s not that all of those objections aren’t real, it’s just that all of them are enhanced by the fact that this degree is online–and thus an innovation, a break from tradition, with all of the anxiety that that entails.

And it probably goes both ways–even for the people who claim that no online education can be worthwhile, a large part of the argument might really come from the fact that they dislike and distrust the CUNY administration, and feel that opposition to anything proposed by the administration is a political or ideological necessity. So for these people, they just might be very glad to approve and accept online education, if it came from the UFS, rather than the CUNY administration.

It may sound like I’m accusing the opponents of the OBD of arguing without principle, in bad faith. That’s not true in every case, certainly. There are people who have sincere and principled objections to this degree, on either of the two lines of reasoning (or combinations of both). At least I think there are. But I have definitely seen dishonesty, and I have definitely seen personal attacks, and I have definitely seen uninformed or disingenuous arguments from the vast majority of those who oppose the OBD.

And all of this is just a real shame. Because this program is one that is going to happen, and it is going to do a lot of good for a lot of students. If the UFS (or anyone else) wanted to support the true goals we all share, they should try to be part of the process, try to improve the program (and we certainly could use help!), rather than just acting as obstacles or roadblocks because of doctrinaire opposition or uninformed prejudice.