Upon finding out that the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia fired President Theresa Sullivan primarily because of her desire to take the leap into large-scale online education more slowly than they wanted, my first inclination was to start gloating. After all, I had just written that this kind of technology would be used as a weapon against faculty (and by extension then, anyone who supports their interests). On second thought, I realized that it doesn’t take genius to predict that a board made up of hedge fund managers and real estate developers would act like hedge fund managers and real estate developers in their continual search for strategic dynamism and creative destruction.
In the wake of the release of their e-mails which prove that point, various members of the Board have been the subject of well-deserved abuse on my Twitter and Google Reader feeds. Even supporters of MOOCs and the like have been merciless in condemning the ignorance of the people who sacked Sullivan, particularly when there were plenty of people on campus in Charlottesville who might have explained to them that going slow with this kind of change is probably a pretty good idea (no matter what David Brooks thinks). After all, the argument goes, these kinds of technologies need to be perfected and assessed. Otherwise, people might misuse them.
Other level heads argue that MOOCs may work well in some contexts, and not others. For instance, they don’t get more reasonable than Timothy Burke:
If you think about MOOCs in the right, very limited, way, they’re exciting. If you think about them the wrong way, check your wallet and your bank account. Guess which way the University of Virginia Board seems to have been thinking about them.
Unfortunately, with the current state of university governance in the United States, that’s practically a distinction without a difference. And with the current state of university governance in the United States, nobody is going to get the time to work out the kinks. Too many people who control universities today either don’t know the difference between a good course and a bad course, or, perhaps more likely, couldn’t care less. They simply see an opportunity to cut labor costs, and by gum they’re going to take it.
If you ever read my last blog, you’d know I have an incredibly low opinion of the American Enterprise Institute’s Richard Vedder. Unfortunately, in this case (as quoted by Remaking the University), he’s absolutely right:
“[T]he “Faculty Senate’s reaction shows confusion about who runs the university. Legally, the faculty work for the board, not vice versa. But the faculty don’t consider the trustees their bosses. That demonstrates a major problem: a murky conception of property rights and governance. The faculty believe that, since they do all the teaching and research, they are the university.”
Don’t get me wrong. I think we should run the university, but all the power lies elsewhere. In the age of permanent austerity, all you have to do is follow the money if you want to know who really calls the shots. Since MOOCs have no revenue model yet, they’ll ultimately be controlled by their funders for the forseeable future.
This is where the moderates among you (that’s you, Kate) will likely be up in arms. Why do we have to throw the baby out with bathwater? Can’t we reason with these people? Isn’t there room for pedagogical experimentation? The problem with that position is that it assumes that professors can control what they create. Unfortunately, like Frankenstein’s monster, once a strategically dynamic idea like the MOOC is created, it kind of develops a mind of its own.