It’s Your Legacy Choice Governor Brown: Chinese Emperor or Dad?

Kowtowing to the Chinese emperor
This past week, Governor Jerry Brown – as he promised – came to yet another Regents meeting with a message of online education and various not-well-defined demands for more efficiency in higher education.  With a few exceptions, what the governor got was kowtowing.  The Regents sung his praise as they did at prior meetings.  Shortly after the meeting, UC President Mark Yudof quit – although he, too, did what is perceived as the requisite degree of kowtowing in announcing he was leaving office.
As is well known, Chinese emperors expected those who approached them to kowtow.  To varying degrees, western ambassadors went along with the practice as a necessary step to get what they wanted: trade concessions and later conquest and subjugation.  The legacy of Chinese emperors seen from a modern perspective is that they ultimately were failures.  But undoubtedly they viewed themselves as all-seeing and as smarter than the foreign barbarians coming to their courts.  I suspect, Governor Brown, that you don’t want your legacy in California to be seen as having been the equivalent of a Chinese emperor.
So what about online education and your apparent enthusiasm for it?  Is it really the key to revolutionizing higher ed?  It may appear that it is a new idea – the latest thing – but it really isn’t.  When I was a kid in the 1950s, you could turn on your black and white TV and watch a college course – Sunrise Semester – at 6 am in the morning.  A learned professor would give a lecture on TV!  What an exciting new concept!  If you bought the textbook and showed up for an exam, you could get college credit for the course.   
Sunrise Semester
Now it’s true that TV signals don’t reach around the world the way the Internet does.  But such signals in the 1950s could reach millions of potential viewers.  And even before video tape became available to TV stations, kinescopes of the programs could in principle have allowed the programs to be broadcast in different regions by different stations. 

Never heard of Sunrise Semester? Take a look:

Over the years, the notion of video recording classes has come and gone and then returned again.  In the 1970s at the UCLA Anderson School, I can remember an effort to videotape certain classes with the idea that students could just watch the tapes by checking them out of the library and then pass exams.  At the time, video tape technology was becoming available and economical for business and home use – it was the latest thing.  My recollection is that a good deal of money was spent on this effort.  I have a dim memory that there may have been grants to make the tapes.  (Ford Foundation?)  Anyway, the tapes ended up in a draw somewhere.  Students weren’t interested.
When video conferencing became more feasible in the 1990s, there was a push for “distance learning.”  And, yes, UC put money into that approach, too.  Students on one UC campus would be able via video conferencing to enroll in courses at another campus. But even the phrase “distance learning” seems to have vanished.   Where are all of those courses now?
So is online ed – now the seeming latest thing – really going do what Sunrise Semester and course video taping  and course video conferencing didn’t do?  Or will the firms touting such online efforts end up like the many dot-coms that seemed exciting in the 1990s, i.e., defunct in the 2000s?  You have had a tendency over your career, Governor Brown, to want to be known for innovation – remember your 800 phone number for presidential campaign fundraising?  But can you honestly say at the end of the day that you want your legacy to based on such “innovations”?  The 800-number governor?
Gov. Pat Brown receives Master Plan from UC President Clark Kerr
Let’s turn to your dad, Pat Brown, whose legacy as governor is not identified with being a Chinese emperor and expecting a lot of ego-stroking kowtowing.  We know in fact that your dad in the field of higher education is identified with the development of the Master Plan.  When he took office in the late 1950s – the era when Sunrise Semester was the latest thing – he could have spent his political capital fostering such TV courses.  Undoubtedly, since that was an era in which the California budget for higher ed was expanding, the Regents would have kowtowed to him and gone along.  There were dollars at stake and kowtowing is cheap.
Instead, however, Pat Brown identified what could be called a management problem in California higher education.  There were three segments of the system: UC, what became CSU, and the community colleges, all competing for resources but with no plan as to who was to do what.  Management problems of that type – resource allocation and priority setting – are not now and were not then, the latest thing.  But it was those problems on which Pat Brown worked and ultimately addressed successfully.  That’s why he is remembered as a great governor, not for doing the seeming latest high-tech thing.
It’s your choice now, Governor Brown.  The Regents will go on kowtowing if that’s what you want.  And you can push them into doing more online education.  But like that old Sunrise Semester video embedded above, you may not get much of a long-term legacy out of that approach.  The alternative is to address those unsexy management problems that clearly do abound in higher ed – and at UC in particular. 
Here are some questions that might be addressed.  You were asked by the UCLA Daily Bruinabout the degree to which UC campuses should have autonomy and – as a prior post on this blog noted – you didn’t really have an idea about that issue.  Maybe you should have an opinion – or at least be seeking one.  This blog has noted repeatedly that the Regents do not really have the tools for effective oversight concerning the huge UC capital budget.  Indeed, one could question the degree to which they have the tools for effective oversight of the system as a whole.  As we have noted on this blog, UC campuses – if UCLA is at all representative – are overly bureaucratic at the bottom and too slim in top management.  The result is fiefdoms below the top and costly procedures.  Might you want to address that problem, Governor Brown?
Maybe what you need to do is not to make yourself the center of attention, avoid the temptation to pontificate, and do what your dad did: set in motion a process that would produce another Master Plan.  Work behind the scenes to find what reforms are needed and develop consensus behind them.  You may think that’s what you are doing.  But soundbites such as “I’m giving you 5% and you want 11.6%” are not the key to anything but short-term media attention.
Again, it’s your choice.  Chinese emperor or dad?