University of California teachers' union aims to block online classes

California’s university system — like the rest of the state — is in dire straits financially. Small wonder, then, that schools there have begun to give some thought to the expansion of cost-cutting online education programs. But predictably, the California teachers’ unions have something to say about that:

The specter and promise of online education is perhaps nowhere more deeply felt than in California, where campus administrators and instructors are faced with a bloodletting. University of California officials have suggested that the system will have to innovate out of the current financial crisis by expanding online programs. (State house analysts agree.) Instructors, meanwhile, are terrified that this is code for cutting their pay, or increasing their workloads, or outsourcing their jobs to interlopers, or replacing them with online teaching software.

The system’s corps of lecturers feels this threat sharply. “We believe that if courses are moved online, they will most likely be the classes currently taught by lecturers,” reads a brief declaration against online education on the website of UC-AFT, the University of California chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, “and so we will use our collective bargaining power to make sure that this move to distance education is done in a fair and just way for our members.”

Now the California lecturers, who make up nearly half of the system’s undergraduate teaching teachers, believe they have used that bargaining power to score a rare coup. The University of California last week tentatively agreed to a deal with UC-AFT that included a new provision barring the system and its campuses from creating online courses or programs that would result in “a change to a term or condition of employment” of any lecturer without first dealing with the union.

The president of the teachers’ union says he thinks this new agreement gives the union veto power over “almost any online program,” while university representatives say the provision doesn’t effectively change anything. All it means, they say, is that, if the union objects to an online education program, the university will have to go through the same process — mediation, fact-finding, maybe a university mandate, potentially a union strike, etc. — as it would if the union objected to any university decision that would jeopardize lecturers’ jobs or work lives.

This just recalls to mind the way unions affect markets in disappointing ways. Would we rather have a more affordable product for more people or arbitrarily protected and unwarrantedly posh jobs?

Frankly, it’s astonishing to me that a knee-jerk defensiveness of lecturers’ jobs is the best this union can do. They could at least make the case for why face-to-face interaction enhances education. Certainly, I can. As a relatively recent graduate and a person who now spends the majority of my time online, I often miss the camaraderie of the classroom. The Internet is the largest salon on earth — the easiest and broadest possible exchange of ideas imaginable — but, all too frequently, ideologues of a certain stripe collect in a certain corner of it and never leave that corner, never encounter ideas that force them to test assumptions. For all that universities perpetuate a certain amount of propaganda, for all that they, too, frequently fail to conscientiously court ideological diversity, they do bring together a wide variety of people and in person. And the in-person principle does seem important to me, somehow. Perhaps the “dehumanization” of ideas — the separation of ideas from the person who thinks them — enables us to consider them more objectively, strictly on the merits of the ideas themselves and not on our affinity or disinclination for the person. But it might also be that it de-contextualizes those ideas, robs us from really observing the fabric from which the ideas were formed. Someone who knows me, who can see my facial expressions as I say something, who can hear my tone of voice, will surely understand what it is I’m trying to say better than someone who encounters only my typed words on a screen.

That’s less an argument against online programs — which are surely an excellent and affordable way to provide basic education for more people — as it is an argument for the revival of the university as it was originally conceived — a place in which to question, to learn, to debate. In many ways, we abandoned the concept of such a place as soon as we made it seem like a societal imperative for everyone — even those who have little interest in academics — to earn a B.A., when we started subsidizing college loans, when we started inflating the cost of college tuition. (Yes, I’m back to Mr. Charles Murray.) The education bubble needed to burst. The demand for a true university experience is probably quite small, and, yes, that means UC-AFT lecturers might be in too abundant of a supply, but let supply and demand determine the cost of an online college education and an in-person college education and schools will no longer be faced with a “bloodletting.” Best of all, educationally speaking, lecturers who truly want to foster an academic environment — and aren’t just looking for a job with tenure — would only have to interact face-to-face with students who also want to contribute to such an environment.