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Home » Clarion » 2023 » May 2023 » CUNY Online raises troubling questions

CUNY Online raises troubling questions

Looking into the new online dealBy PENNY LEWIS, PSC SECRETARY

PSC Secretary Penny Lewis testifies to the CUNY Board of Trustees in December.

On March 27, the CUNY Board of Trustees approved a nearly $8 million contract with O’Donnell Learn, an instructional design firm, the execution of which has the potential to fundamentally transform the university. While CUNY has not yet responded to the union’s demand for a copy of the contract, the RFP slates 1,300 classes for creation in the coming three years, which, combined with hundreds of classes already on the books, will constitute the over 100 degree programs that together will comprise CUNY Online.

As planned, this new version of CUNY Online is supported and coordinated by CUNY’s central administration, but individual degrees are developed and housed at any CUNY campus that seeks to develop them, rather than (as initially proposed) the School of Professional Studies. The controlling stipulation from CUNY Central, and from the contract that the Board approved, is that all these degrees be fully asynchronous, which means that there can be no expectation that students and faculty, or students and students, meet in real time, either in person or remotely.


The union has repeatedly demanded to bargain over the terms of this contract, as it proposes outsourcing the work of instructional design, currently performed by members of our bargaining unit. CUNY has thus far refused to do so, and the union is preparing charges to file with the Public Employment Relations Board.

We are still learning about this initiative, and please find at the end of this article an address for members to contact us with your own thoughts and information about CUNY Online at your campus.

But what we do know so far has given us cause for alarm. CUNY met with the union in January to explain its objectives in pursuing this program. They argued that fully asynchronous online degree programs are attractive to adult learners who have work and family responsibilities, that CUNY has fewer such programs than other comparable systems, and that CUNY’s goal is therefore to bring new, untapped pools of students to CUNY.


But we have many questions and concerns about these stipulations, and beyond.

As I noted recently in testimony to the CUNY Board of Trustees, campuses were just asked to provide plans for 5% – 7% budget cuts. It seems extremely likely that this massive online initiative will draw resources away from other teaching modalities, in-person and hybrid. CUNY has not taken its vision of this massive project to the campuses for meaningful collective review; most of our colleagues don’t even know it’s coming. This makes a mockery of true shared governance.

CUNY has a school that specializes in fully online asynchronous degree programs – the School of Professional Studies (SPS). Recognizing that in-person social and collective supports for academic work and study are missing in this individualized and possibly isolating mode of study, SPS invests a significant amount of its personnel resources toward support for these students.


What SPS does not invest in is full-time faculty. According to the most recent available data in the Student Data Book, as well as CUNY’s Midyear Report, in Fall 2021 there were 26 full-time faculty teaching 4,072 full- and part-time students at SPS, or one full-time (FT) faculty member for every 156 students at SPS. CUNY-wide, 6,745 full-time faculty taught 243,389 students that same semester, or one FT faculty for every 36 students. If the rest of CUNY looked like SPS, we’d have over 5,000 fewer full-time faculty at CUNY.

Comparing full-time equivalent students, the numbers are slightly better, but there would still be over 4,000 fewer FT faculty at CUNY. CUNY’s experience with SPS raises the very real possibility of expanded online asynchronous programs accelerating a wholesale deprofessionalization of the faculty role, and a marked decline in campus commitments to future professorial lines, compromising the education of all CUNY students.


As far as student support staff goes, CUNY Online threatens to worsen a situation where staff are stretched to the brink. In fact, at least one CUNY learning center director was informed that CUNY is currently planning to assign all CUNY Online tutoring duties to the home campus of the student, rather than the home campus of the course itself. This would mean that, for example, a tutor at Baruch College would be expected to work with a Baruch student taking a Hostos-based course with a Hostos-based instructor. This tutor would therefore need to be familiar with a new universe of classes at Hostos and would have little of the fine-tuned understanding that campus tutors develop for the courses on their campuses.

This is already a problem with e-permit courses, but the scale of this expansion would drastically increase the workload of tutors and support staff while diminishing the quality of the support students receive. Some online program support offices and staff are already having their time redirected from supporting instruction happening now to attending meetings around the creation of new, asynchronous courses.

My school, the School of Labor and Urban Studies, was once affiliated with SPS, and I served on its governing body. I heard repeatedly from my colleagues that online asynchronous worked for some students, but that in their experience it is not a modality that works for many, even most students. SPS faculty argued that SPS served particular populations – self-directed, highly motivated and well-organized learners – that the modality depends upon for success.

But overall, graduation rates for fully asynchronous programs lag behind face-to-face programs. Many current CUNY students will be drawn to these programs because of their seeming ease and convenience, but they are unlikely to succeed. What safeguards will CUNY create to guide students toward the best paths for their learning? We are concerned that CUNY’s eager embrace of this modality will set up many of our students for failure.


The pressure to support our students through their courses, especially for adjuncts lacking job security and vulnerable to student complaints, could encourage an erosion of standards. Just as we don’t want our students to fail in asynchronous settings poorly designed for their needs, we don’t want CUNY to approach the “degree mill” status to which some online programs have sunk across the country.

We are further concerned about academic freedom. The guidelines that colleges received on developing fully asynchronous courses imply that the course be reusable, and do not acknowledge the necessity of or explicitly anticipate resources for the ongoing revision of content. Who will own these courses? Who will have the right to revise them? Will faculty be compensated for the labor-intensive work of ongoing revision and renewal?


In sum, a fully online asynchronous modality is labor-intensive to develop, teach, revise and support, and it is not an optimal modality for most of the students we teach. What kinds of training, support and compensation will faculty and staff receive for this work? What kinds of support will students receive? Without guarantees of adequate resources, compensation, and broad freedoms for faculty, online asynchronous degree programs risk becoming purveyors of rigid outdated curricula, stifling academic freedom, providing insufficient or undirected supports for students, and thereby diminishing educational quality and experience for our students.

Enrollment decline across CUNY appears to be leveling off, but the university is certainly not where it needs to be. Yet this enrollment gamble, relying on completely online asynchronous degrees, comes with many risks. A broad and deep conversation about the wisdom of this CUNY Online path should be taken up in our departments, offices, programs, governance bodies and union chapters. We will be hosting a Zoom-based town hall in May to raise some of these and other questions. We also invite members to share their perspectives on this initiative, at the address below and with Clarion, in the form of letters to the editor.

To contact the union about your experience with CUNY Online, send any correspondence to: [email protected].

Published: April 26, 2023 | Last Modified: October 2, 2023

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