Southern University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) with five branches in Louisiana, is the latest college to experience a wave of faculty dissent and concern about the development of online degree programs at their school. The faculty at the New Orleans campus (SUNO) has come right out and opposed the creation of a fully online degree program, and the Baton Rouge faculty are considering similar opposition.
What is the basis of their opposition? It’s not opposition to any online programming. Rather, the faculty at Southern oppose the way the program was created outside of the official process by which college curriculum is designed, which involves faculty review to guarantee quality and rigor. I’ve participated in this process extensively: When a course or program is created, it must go through several levels of peer review before it is accepted as a legitimate and rigorous course by the full faculty and administration. This, according to Southern Faculty Senate President Sudhir Trivedi, is not what happened with the creation of the new online degree programs. He said, “We are not against doing online degrees. But it’s not as easy as just saying, ‘Put them online.’ We are doing everything under the table.”
The situation at Southern University is similar to what goes on at campuses across the nation when the decision to create online courses or complete programs is made: Faculty are often left out of the equation about how to develop and design the courses. At Southern, the school contracted with Education Online Services Corp. (EOServe) to provide online degree programs that the company already offers at other branches of the college in Louisiana. The faculty was not consulted on the content of these courses, and Southern Faculty Senate President Joseph Bouie argues that, “The bedrock of successful HBCU matriculation is a nurturing environment, via quality education programs and face-to-face interaction. A strictly online venue negates HBCU pillar and efforts to ‘develop Southern University as the online HBCU brand’ contradicts the role, scope and mission of an HBCU. There is nothing (EOServe) offers that SUNO cannot do for itself given appropriate resources.”
There are other issues at play at Southern that are causing faculty to question how the new online degree programs were created and how they would operate:
- Faculty Senate President Bouie, former chancellor of the University, has raised questions about the current leadership, including violations of faculty rights and academic integrity, and financial problems.
- The new online degree programs will charge all students with higher out-of-state tuition rates, which may be unfair to in-state students.
- The current president of the Southern University System, Ronald Mason Jr., previously brokered a similar deal when he was at Jackson State University in Mississippi, which might raise questions about the relationship he has with the for-profit company.
In the midst of this controversy at Southern, its faculty pinpointed an issue that is at the heart of faculty concerns about online programs across the country: Faculty governance and faculty control over the material they teach is an integral part of the quality of any educational institution. That’s why faculty opposition to online program development can be very beneficial to an institution. Faculty members are trained professionals and the fact of the matter is that a college’s professors know their students best. They are on the front lines, so to speak, interacting with students of all ages and abilities. Administrators have statistics, but faculty has classroom experience. In addition, faculty members are subject matter experts—they have advanced degrees in their subjects, in most cases have published original research, and in many instances are nationally and internationally recognized authorities in their fields. The experience and wisdom of a college’s faculty should always be part of the ongoing process of curriculum development, and they should be invited to work with course designers and administration on the creation of these programs.
That doesn’t always happen when online programs are created, as evidenced by the controversy at Southern University. Similarly, the Academic Senate of many branches of the University of California has called for the delay or suspension of its creation of online programs. According to the California Academic Senate, “Unfortunately, the current initiative reflects an all too common approach to curricular innovation, a top down management with little or no meaningful faculty input.”
Many have been quick to criticize the California Academic Senate’s position, including Troy Senik, who blasted the California Academic Senate and refers to faculty as a “cadre of self-styled ‘intellectuals’” who are an “example of how California teachers unions consistently act against the interests of the Golden State’s students.” He claims that the California faculty members are only concerned with job security.
However, educators point out that this is far from the case: their opposition stems from a desire to make sure that students, rather than profits, are kept in the forefront of the development of online education, by making sure that there is quality control, that the actual experts in the field help design the courses, and that students have access to faculty that can assist them. California Academic Senate Chairman Mike Mahoney said, “Right now, the faculty are in control of the curriculum. The faculty creates the courses, create the degrees, undergraduate and graduate etc. Because some faculty are concerned that might be taken away from them [...] the faculty are concerned about that more than ever.”
In addition, faculty are not the only group that believes they should be included in the decision to create online programs. In an interesting twist, Canadian students have expressed concern over the rapid development of online courses and degrees. Speaking for those students who prefer traditional classroom instruction, Canadian Federation of Students president Sandy Hudson recently commented on plans to expand online coursework in Ontario by stating that, “The fact that they’re talking about such a massive overhaul without having reached out to faculty or students is cause for concern. To think that three in five of all courses — the majority of courses in a year that students would be doing — would be online, that is definitely harming the quality of education. If this is a measure to save money … how far behind are Ontario students going to be with the rest of the country, with the rest of the world, if most of the learning that we’re doing isn’t even in front of a lecturer that we can then approach for assistance?”
All of these positions should be taken into consideration before a college or university decides to create or expand online degree programs. College and university administrations need to recognize that faculty members offer valuable insights into the students, the course curriculum, and teaching methodologies, while students themselves can provide specific information about what they, the learners, want for educational opportunities. Education is a collaborative effort; the creation of new education programs should be as well. Then faculty, students, and administrators can all benefit from online learning.