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National CrossTalk Summer 1999
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"California Virtual University"
Highly touted experiment falls short of expectations

By Carl Irving

Sacramento, California

  Photo by Alan Decker for CrossTalk
  Historian Stanley Chodorow agreed to run the California Virtual University but the venture collapsed for political and financial reasons.  
CALIFORNIA'S ENTRY into the electronic university sweepstakes -- the California Virtual University -- began with high hopes and great expectations a little more than two years ago, but the venture has collapsed in the face of indifference, if not hostility, on the part of legislators, educators and the state's business community.

In 1997, former Governor Pete Wilson declined to join the Western Governors University, the distance learning venture that was started by two governors -- Republican Mike Leavitt of Utah and Democrat Roy Romer of Colorado -- and now includes 18 member states in the west and midwest.

Instead, Wilson opted for a California-only approach that he hoped would combine quality learning with the latest in high technology in a private, non-profit, self-sustaining foundation that would both alleviate demands for new California campuses and also attract out-of-state students.

Wilson also thought a successful California Virtual University might boost his possible bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, participants in the project recalled. But neither Wilson's candidacy, nor the virtual university, got off the ground.

The idea was that California's higher education institutions -- the University of California, the California State University, the California Community Colleges and the private colleges and universities -- would cooperate in creating an online university that would enable students to select courses from many different institutions.

For instance, a student at Humboldt State, one of the 22 Cal State campuses, could search an electronic course catalogue and sign up for an online course that was not available at Humboldt but was offered by the University of Southern California, a private school, if both campuses agreed. Unlike Western Governors University, however, the California Virtual University (CVU) did not plan to offer degrees or certificates.

Wilson, a Republican, hoped for start-up funds from a Democratic legislature because the governor thought he had the support of the state's higher education leaders, both public and private. The governor also was assured that matching funds would flow from the state's cluster of high tech firms, sources close to the project said.

Later, growing demand from students would enable CVU to become self-sufficient, Wilson and others thought.

At first, there was great enthusiasm for the idea. A CVU spokesman said, "We're aiming to be the of technology-mediated education in California, so that as a student you just have to go to one Web site."

"We'll have a global audience," proclaimed Diane Vines, a former Cal State administrator who helped design and plan the virtual university.

Official letters in support of state funding for CVU poured into the office of former Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, a moderate Republican who, early in 1998, introduced legislation establishing the California Virtual University and requesting $9 million over three years to support CVU and other distance learning activities.

James Highsmith, a Cal State Fresno professor who was then chairman of the Cal State statewide Academic Senate, praised the bill as an "important develop California's human capital."

However, some legislators now say they detected early signs of a lack of enthusiasm among higher education and business leaders for financing this coordinated distance learning effort. Without pressure from these sources, the Democratic legislative leadership felt little compulsion to support the Republican governor's initiative.

Only the California Community Colleges, with more than 1.4 million students on 106 campuses -- at least one in almost every legislator's district -- received state funding for distance learning last year. Nothing went to the University of California or to Cal State and neither system contributed any of its own money to CVU.

Corporate contributions also fell short of expectations. Five "founding partners" (there were to have been ten) -- Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Pacific Bell and International Thomson Publishing -- each gave $75,000. Another $250,000 came from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

But little attention was paid to these danger signals and planning for CVU proceeded at a brisk pace.

A 22-member task force, using gubernatorial office space and equipment, had been established, with Joe Rodota, a former Wilson deputy chief of staff, as coordinator. The task force included delegates from the four segments of California higher education -- UC, Cal State, the community colleges and the private campuses.

Within eight months, participants had glued together an online catalogue that ultimately listed more than 2,500 courses from more than 100 campuses.

Governor Wilson predicted, "[CVU] is going to provide access to quality higher education to a larger percentage of our population -- how much larger, only time will tell. Those who, simply for reasons of their own work schedule or their physical remoteness from a residential campus, will now be able to at any time and literally at any place, access the kind of higher educational opportunities they need for their own advancement professionally."

Three days later, Wilson ended most staff support for CVU, including use of computers, on the assumption that the campuses and business sponsors would take it from there. But that never happened.

  Photo by Rod Searcy for CrossTalk
  University of California administrator Carol Tomlinson - Keasey thinks the demise of the "virtual university" probably is for the best.  
Stanley Chodorow, former provost at the University of Pennsylvania, was hired as CVU's chief executive officer. Chodorow, who took over last September, is a medieval historian who has won a wide range of honors for scholarship and teaching. After four years at Penn, he was returning to California, where he had been a faculty member and administrator at UC San Diego for 26 years. He received an enthusiastic welcome.

"His energy and thorough understanding of education will be valuable in using telecommunications and technology to expand access to improve the quality of higher education," said Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed.

But shortly after his arrival, Chodorow detected worrisome uncertainties.

The proposal for start-up financing had gotten "caught up in the tussle between the Legislature and the governor (during the 1998 state budget battle), and the governor sacrificed it," Chodorow said in a recent interview. But a former Wilson Administration official offered a more charitable view.

"There was a sense among the Democrats that this was a Wilson priority for bargaining," this source said. "But Wilson did not feel this was an item to be leveraged. He said in effect, ‘It's up to you guys; we're pulling out.' He didn't want it politicized."

Funding last fall was "way short of what had been expected," Chodorow said. With the Wilson era ending, it became clear that prospects for sufficient outside aid had evaporated, along with the governor's influence. "The governor had talked directly with the companies who were supportive or interested in being supportive," Chodorow said, "and when he withdrew, their interest declined."

"At the same time, the governor had not demanded that any of the higher education institutions make contributions," he added. "That had been the original idea -- that the institutions needn't make a commitment."

When Democrat Gray Davis, who replaced Wilson as governor last January, submitted his first budget, it contained no state money for the California Virtual University.

Most private foundations were unwilling to support CVU if the state were not going to invest some of its own money. Immediately after taking office, Chodorow asked, "What were the beneficiaries (the campuses) putting up? The answer was ‘nothing' and the response from the foundations was ‘Why, then, should we?'"

"This kind of enterprise should have had state support," said Larry Toy, president of the California Community Colleges Foundation. "All other states with similar ventures had state support."
But the Firestone bill, providing millions in start-up money, went nowhere. Hearings on the legislation never were held.

"We were under the impression that outside, private grants would fund (CVU), along with a self-supporting catalogue service," explained Amy Supinger, chief consultant to the Assembly Committee on Higher Education.

Supinger, who said she spoke for Democratic Assemblyman Ted Lempert, chairman of the higher education committee, said, "we saw (CVU) as increasing demand, not accommodating existing enrollment demand." She said Lempert "never believed the CVU would address Tidal Wave 2," the expected rapid growth in California public higher education enrollments in the next few years.

Searching for revenue, Chodorow hoped to gain some through book sales. A contract was signed with Barnes and Noble but "it became clear almost immediately that no one had checked with the campuses," he said. "They objected that books were their function. Their own financial structures and plans included bookstores. So we were in competition with our own institutions."

Another dashed prospect involved selling the online courses overseas. Chodorow and a delegation from the higher education institutions visited Japan and China last October. "We would have had some agreements in the next year had we stayed alive," he said. "We would have had an operation in Japan and Singapore and perhaps with China. We were talking to our sponsors, such as Oracle and Sun, to help develop and deliver overseas courses."

Last March, an increasingly desperate Chodorow persuaded the CVU board to endorse a request to the three public higher education segments to guarantee a budget for three years at a rate of $1 million a year, to raise money by selling advertising space in the online catalogue, and to attract more matching grants from foundations. The advertising was hardly a normal practice for non-profit campuses, Chodorow conceded, but the board endorsed the proposal "as the way we had to go, the world we were living in."

But that effort also failed. None of the segments offered to rescue the virtual university. The community colleges and private schools were said to be willing to donate, and UC reportedly would have gone along. But Cal State balked, according to several participants in the discussions, all of whom requested anonymity.

... Cal State Chancellor Reed already had announced plans to offer 15 percent of Cal State's courses online within five years. "He was persuaded that his institution could go it alone, that he didn't need us," one source said.

Asked for comment, Reed replied, "It was my understanding that everyone was in the same frame of mind...there was no use putting money into something deeper and deeper in debt."

Reed referred to a notice from UC President Richard C. Atkinson that, as of May 24, 1999, California Virtual University debts totaled more than $153,000. "Our investigations reveal that the CVU Foundation liabilities far outweigh assets," Atkinson wrote.

"A year ago when I took office (prospects for CVU) were different," Reed said. "Anything we can do to provide opportunity for faculty to use technology, we ought to. I have no idea what was wrong. I think people are much more comfortable dealing with a traditional, existing university, rather than trying to figure out how virtual universities work."

Last March, a disheartened Chodorow decided to give up. He returned a second $250,000 installment to the Sloan Foundation and left the payroll on March 31, along with his lone remaining assistant. This fall Chodorow will return to the UC San Diego History department, where he is a professor emeritus. The University of California agreed to handle final details of shutting down the virtual university and to maintain its web site for at least three months.

  The California Virtual University's Web site home page promises many services that are not, in fact, available.
So ends, at least for now, California's attempt to compete with other states (Florida, Kentucky) and regional groups (Western Governors University, the Southern Regional Education Board's "electronic campus") in the online university business.

Some think this is just as well.

"We'll decentralize responsibilities for courses back down to the segment level," said Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, who chaired the last sessions of the CVU board and is vice provost for academic initiatives at UC. "I actually think that's a good place for it to be."

"One of the problems with an independent organization is that there's no connection with the university," Tomlinson-Keasey added. "(And) online learning is taking a wide variety of forms, from a complete course in front of a monitor to places where technology is infusing courses in terms of sets of problems online, or graded online, or chat rooms, or using multimedia to access multi-collections."

Financial backing was a major issue, she said, because each of the three public segments has its own funding priorities. "So if you say, spend some money on an independent venture, it's very hard when each segment has its mouth open and feels it's not being fed enough."

Warren H. Fox, executive director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC), which advises the governor and the Legislature on higher education policy, favors "exploring more productive relations" with Western Governors University, which plans to offer degree programs. CPEC was critical of CVU almost from the start, contending that it had a misleading title because it was not a university, had no faculty and offered no degrees.

Some predict the California Virtual University, or something like it, is bound to emerge in the nation's most populous state, but Chodorow is doubtful.

"These kinds of experiments typically are put on a back burner," he said. "We will see individual institutions aggressively and unaggressively pursue similar programs. State government may develop a public institution supported by public funds in two to four years."

He hopes all was not for naught: "By its very existence, CVU was a stimulant. It spread the gospel and helped institutions think about how their programs might find a niche...It was like honey bees, moving from flower to flower."

Carl Irving is a former political and higher education reporter for the San Francisco Examiner.

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