COLUMN: Not so fast, Global Campus

By Brian Pierce

The push by University president B. Joseph White to create a so-called Global Campus in which a University of Illinois degree is offered primarily through online courses has failed to generate much attention on campus. This is a shame since it holds the promise to be either a miraculous success or a crippling failure.

I’m betting on the latter.

Regardless of one’s feelings about online education, what everybody should be able to agree on is that there can be no hope for success if the program is not enacted with care and attention to detail. And yet the ordinary process by which a program that carries so much risk for the University would go through has been circumvented by those pushing for its enactment.

The UC Senate, composed of both faculty members and students, has urged President White to put the breaks on the creation of this campus. A report issued Nov. 15 by a task force created by the UC Senate refused to recommend endorsement of Global Campus, urging “its reconsideration, with a view to attaining greater consensus than now exists with respect to its model, structure, guiding principles and relation to the existing campuses.”

In a meeting with the Illinois Student Senate several weeks ago, Chet Gardner, President White’s special assistant on the Global Campus, was grilled by students on a variety of issues, many of which were shared in the UC Senate taskforce’s report. Specific answers were sparse and when asked why there was such a rush to get this done, answers alluded to a need for a corporate structure in which decisions are made quickly and efficiently. This of course means the current structure for University decision making, centered on shared governance and input from all concerned parties, is being set aside.

The second problem, regardless of concerns over process, is that the concept of an online campus does not offer much promise in the way of quality. There is something kindhearted but foolish about promising the benefits of a quality university education without requiring some of the necessary sacrifices that a quality university education demands, including physically attending the campus.

The rigorous academic education that attending a university provides quite simply cannot be duplicated on a computer screen. There is something about living in the midst of a student body dedicated to learning that transforms higher education from simply learning lessons about a given subject into surrounding oneself with other students committed to intellectual betterment.

None of this is to say online learning is worthless or that those who cannot, as a result of circumstances and finances, physically attend this university should be left with nothing. Online courses that don’t provide full degrees are perfectly reasonable. More importantly, programs that allow these potential students to attend a university more easily and that ease the struggle of low-income living, such as decreases in tuition or publicly provided day care or health care provisions, should be pursued. But offering an education to the poor that promises quality it cannot deliver will be an insult to them and will hurt the rest of the University.