Op-Eds


Building a new UC – in cyberspace

By Christopher Edley Jr., Los Angeles Times

It is time for an 11th University of California campus: a cyber-campus devoted to awarding online degrees to UC-eligible students.

No budgetary alchemy will allow us to educate the state's future university students in the same way we do now but with less money. The budget cuts caused by the state economic crisis are real and huge, leaving two choices. Educators can do less with less, or we can explore new ways of providing value to California and the nation by doing more -- albeit differently -- with less.


UC XI would have selective admissions; tuition somewhere between community college and the on-campus UC price, part-time and "anytime" options and lectures by the best faculty from the entire UC system. Our online students might miss the keg parties, but they would have the same world-class faculty, UC graduate student instructors and adjunct faculty.

We have the social networking technologies to support student interactions with instructors and each other. Science laboratories could be provided on weekends, at night or during summers, and not exclusively on UC campuses. The faculty can develop powerful academic controls to guarantee UC-caliber instruction and learning.

There are examples of failure in online instruction, but none involved degree-granting instruction by a premier institution with the kind of market appeal that UC campuses enjoy not just in Barstow but in Bangor and Beijing. Moreover, there are some important success stories. Britain's government-funded Open University, begun 40 years ago, offers some lectures in partnership with the BBC. It claims 5% of Britain's adult population has taken at least one of its courses, and it ranks second in student satisfaction out of 258 British institutions, with high marks from government inspectors too. Closer to home, many talented Californians opt for the pricier online University of Phoenix over our public four-year campuses, presumably for convenience and schedules -- or because of our shortage of seats.


Five years ago, when I became dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, I worried that California leaders were no longer committed to having a world-class university, especially law schools. Nowhere is it decreed that a state must challenge the best private universities, though California was proudly unique in that regard. But a generation of stingy state investment suggests that the goal of "world-class K-16 education for all" has become, simply, "better than Mississippi."

We still have unsurpassed excellence, but it is now rationed and increasingly threatened. The higher education master plan's bold promise of access for the many has been shredded in slow motion. We've had decades of increasing dysfunction in Sacramento and smoldering doubts in some quarters about the value of supporting public education. Now comes the resulting surge in victims -- present and future -- in families and throughout the economy.

Many thoughtful people recognize the importance of education to the state's greatness, but President Obama's call for expanding post-secondary education sounds otherworldly to mid-crisis Californians. Based on data from the census and the National Center for Education Statistics, the state is 49th in the percentage of high school graduates going on to degree-granting colleges. So, employers must import higher-end workers, and Californians have comparatively fewer opportunities for the education that builds middle-class security and prosperity.

The UC XI cyber-campus could be a way to put high-quality higher education within reach of tens of thousands more students, including part-timers, and eventually provide a revenue boost for higher education.

A new California master plan should define and deliver state-of-the-art online education. There are scores of tough questions to be answered, and business plans to be drafted and redrafted. But every cliche about a crisis tells us that the best offense is often innovation.

Christopher Edley Jr. is dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law.

7/1/2009