The University of California has recently been in the news again, this time for two spectacular and expensive business failures. But, as UCLA Professor Bob Samuels suggests, “We shouldn’t laugh, because someone is going to have to pay” for them. First was the recent re-branding fiasco, where the UC launched an “updated” version of its logo, which was likened almost immediately to a toilet bowl flushing. After a grassroots campaign gathered more than 50,000 signatures opposing the new logo, the administration reneged on the image only weeks after introducing it. Then, a second seemingly unrelated story popped up a month later. Here, reporters covered a new for-profit version of University of California, UC Online, which had failed to attract more than a handful of the 7,000 students the fledgling company anticipated enrolling. As shown in a UC Online commercial on YouTube that has since been made private, the new logo appeared to be very instrumental in UC Online’s $4.3 million marketing campaign.
These stories are part of a much larger effort by the UC Regents (read California billionaires) to transform the UC system into an even more profitable private entity. Like other large universities, the UC has been operating much like a hedge fund for years, engaging in increasingly risky business with borrowed money. In this example, the Regents approved a $6.9 million loan to UC Online borrowed from the already broke UCs when student fees have more than tripled in the past decade; when it took a massive, statewide effort to pass the much needed (and much watered down) Proposition 30 to help fund education; when funding for libraries, classes, and other services like daycare programs have been eliminated or trimmed to the bone; when national student debt topped $1 trillion last year. After students from China and the military—two groups UC Online apparently targeted heavily—failed to materialize, the university has thus far only been able to recoup 0.0014% of its loan. This leaves many wondering what will happen if UC Online’s business model fails and it is never able to repay this debt back to the university. Conversely, if online education succeeds, what will happen to all of the campus buildings constructed in part from skyrocketing student debt?
To be sure, UC Online is just one project among many on which various members of the UC administration, Governor Brown, and numerous other public and private institutions are working under the moniker “20 Million Minds,” or 20MM. Founded by billionaire (ranked #328 in the Forbes 400) and buyer of “distressed” California commercial real estate Gary Michelson, 20MM is a curious organization, indeed. In a January 20MM-sponsored conference entitled “Rebooting CA Higher Education,” entrepreneurs presented one potential face of what they term “disruptive technology” in the 20MM mission statement, revealing how the organization hopes to “debundle” traditional curricular development. Instead, the online education entrepreneurs promoted an assembly line approach to education where “one person would design a course, another person would present the course, another person would market the course, and none of these people would be involved in research, community service, or shared governance.” And what about the learning side of the equation? As Audrey Watters notes, at the heart of this debate is serious conflict over how we understand the purpose of education itself. But at present, it seems like Gov. Brown and the Regents are not very interested in such questions, already referring to the UC system as “a venerable institution being upended by digital change.” Disruption, indeed. Is it really inevitable, though?
As the lure of online education intoxicates more and more high-level members of school administrations, businesses, and local and federal politicians, and as these interests become ever more deeply linked, it is all the more pressing for us to turn our energies in the direction of online education and to keep asking questions.