This past month a bill was introduced into the California State Senate that, if passed, could radically redefine the role of online learning in American higher education. The proposed legislation, SB 520, would force state colleges and universities to grant credit to students who, unable to register for core classes at their home universities, opt to register for massive open online courses (MOOCs) instead.

The bill was packaged by its champions as a necessary measure designed to defend the best interests of a student body under siege. “We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise,” said Darrell Steinberg, the State Senate president. “No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed.” Detractors attacked it as a top-down effort to allow private companies to profit from public institutions of higher learning—what some have labeled the University of Phoenixization of the U Cal system.

Whatever the outcome, this bill has direct implications for the City University of New York. The debate in California arrives during a period at CUNY when the system has come under attack from rolling budget cuts, privatization schemes and major battles between administration and faculty over curricular decision making and control.  The possibility of a MOOCish future taps into and throws light on these threats to CUNY’s future, and could well contribute to its radical renovation.

MOOCs have received considerable attention in the past year. The most high-profile endorsement appeared in the New York Times.  Thomas Friedman—who has managed to convert his regular column for the paper into a product placement showcase for the entrepreneurial ventures of close friends—made MOOCs the focal point in two recent pieces for the Gray Lady. “You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped,” Friedman argued in one column, “but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student ‘Justice’ course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the MIT-Harvard edX online learning platform.”

In the second, Friedman sacrificed good sense at the altar of hyperbole. “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty…Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.”

Critics of the MOOC movement were quick to respond. Richard Wolff jumped all over Friedman’s enthusiasm for online mega-classes, noting his columns constitute “another exercise in (1) finding a potential positive dimension of capital’s latest profit-driven move, (2) hyping it, and (3) ignoring its contradictions, especially those that are negative.” In The Chronicle, Rebecca Schuman excoriated Friedman’s MOOCopia as representing “nothing less than the creation of an über-oligarchy that is even more exclusive than the current state of academe—which is already elitist enough, thank you very much. Today, about 70 percent of instruction at the postsecondary level in the United States is performed by non-tenure-track faculty, often adjuncts. These low-wage, benefit-free workers are…despite their majority status on most campuses…often treated as total nonentities by the handful of trendily shod full professors who make up what is left of today’s departments.”

Most memorably, Ann Kirschner gave a first-person account of her experiences as a student in one of these courses which produced the most unforgettable one-liner in the entire MOOC debate.  Describing the stresses of managing real-life responsibilities with virtual ones, all without support from an actual campus with actual students, Kirschner reported her realization that “In a MOOC, nobody can hear you scream.”

CUNY, too, has hardly been immune to MOOC mania. At the end of January, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein delivered a speech to the CUNY Financial Management Conference entitled “The Future of Higher Education,” in which MOOCs played a central role. Castigating universities for being slow to change and stuck in their ways, the chancellor noted that “Nowhere is the notion of challenge to the established norms of instruction more apparent than in the explosion of attention to MOOCs and other alternative delivery models.  [These] new models of delivery have the potential to change traditional instruction, financing, facilities, and assessment models.”

Goldstein predicted that “Eventually, an institution may determine the curricula, governance, and pricing to offer an entire degree through the existing menu of MOOCs.  Students will pick and choose among professors from Stanford, MIT, Penn, and universities across the globe…But we are in the infancy of these developments, and more empirical research will be needed before we can answer basic questions about whether demand will result in a tectonic shift in the way we deliver content.”

The chancellor’s enthusiasm for MOOCs shouldn’t come as a surprise. Indeed, it fits perfectly within his market-based understanding of education. It is important to note that while Goldstein admits much more research is needed to judge the viability of MOOCs moving forward, his concern is divorced from considerations of quality. The chancellor’s chief concern is demand.

And that’s why the bill in California is so important to the future of CUNY. The structure of SB 520 practically guarantees a cycle of demand and supply in its presentation.  Underfunding has rendered California colleges unable to meet student demand, the argument goes, which can be met by MOOCs.  As MOOCs attract more and more students (and keep in mind their theoretically unlimited capacity for students) pressures to preserve education funding for regular classes will diminish, which at the very least will sustain consistent demand for more MOOCs. And so on, and so on, and so on.

The University of California Academic Senate issued a strong statement rejecting the proposed legislation. In an open letter, senate leaders wrote “limits on student access to the courses this bill targets are in large part the result of significant reductions in public state higher education funding, especially over the last six years. Second, the clear self-interest of for-profit corporations in promoting the privatization of public higher education through this legislation is dismaying… Lastly, the faculty at the University of California…approves courses taught for credit at the University and reviews courses offered for transfer credit…There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over courses to any outside agency.”

The issues highlighted by UC’s Academic Senate are precisely those facing CUNY at current. Like the UC system, CUNY has been routinely victimized over the past several years by slash-and-burn campaigns against its budget, cuts which have led to higher tuition, fewer course offerings, faculty layoffs, and increased class sizes.

The City University has also been made subject to bald-face privatization schemes, such as the controversial CUNY-IBM “six year high school”—a Frankensteinian secondary school/junior college hybrid designed to churn out work-ready, entry-level employees for the computer company’s headquarters in North Carolina.

Finally, the issue of faculty governance in curricular matters has been a flashpoint of confrontation in CUNY of late. The chancellor’s Pathways push has made a mockery of shared governance in the university, and provoked militant responses from faculties across the system that refuse to cede their expert authority without a fight. The faculty at UC has rightly asserted its rights and responsibilities in response to this legislation, but is unfortunately having to play defense.

Faculty, students, and staff at CUNY ought to jump out in front of the issue while there’s still an opportunity. Student and faculty unions and other organizations have made great gains in beating back the call to enact further austerity measures on the CUNY budget. Most notably, they helped force a budget increase for City University of some $137 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Victories of this sort forestall the possibility of increasingly overcrowded classrooms which justify calls for the provision of alternative sources of learning “delivery.” Fighting for further increases, and defending against future cuts, must continue as a matter of priority.

At the same time, the CUNY community needs to continue working to preserve space for quality education and instruction to thrive in the university against the predations of market demand. The chancellor has been very clear on this point. “Universities,” Goldstein contends,“need to seek advice and direction from companies whose employment needs can shape the direction of curricular innovation.” Actually, they don’t, nor should they. The chancellor himself has said that he believes the survival of CUNY rests on being responsive to students. It’s time to take Goldstein at his word and demand a university that equips students with a variety of different skills and experiences, not just those that are attractive to corporate executives.

In order to this, though, the tradition of shared governance at CUNY needs to be preserved at all costs.  The Board of Trustees and Chancellor Goldstein have sought to strip university faculty of any meaningful oversight capacity in university curricular decision making. As the Pathways case demonstrates, a CUNY without shared governance is a CUNY which no longer serves the interests of students as its first priority.  The good news here is that when faculties decide to put up a fight, there’s very little recourse for administration to secure what it wants. It would be nice to see faculties across CUNY not only continue rejecting the Pathways initiative, but also collectively stand up against MOOCs by issuing a statement rejecting any possibility that they’ll ever be welcome at the City University.

The bill in the California State Senate stands a good chance of being passed into law. If it does, precedent will be set for state university systems across the country. The chancellor and board of trustees will certainly use it as a point of departure in advancing their vision of a university run on a model of corporate supply and demand.

The only way to resist these pressures and render the outcome in California irrelevant to life at CUNY is to advance alternative visions for the future of our university—visions that include proper funding, freedom from private interests, and meaningful community control—and fight like hell to realize them.