SAN FRANCISCO -- For a man who prides himself on a collaborative style that he admits wasn't his forte in his early years, Gov. Jerry Brown hasn't quite lost his enjoyment of a good debate.
That certainly was true during his daylong participation Thursday at the meeting of the University of California's Board of Regents and their examination of calls by Brown and others to greatly expand UC's catalog of online courses.
After UC student regent Jonathan Stein wondered aloud whether the push is a good idea, pointing out that no one has even asked students what they think, the governor -- largely quiet and pensive all morning -- seemed to sense the opportunity that he'd been looking for an opening to make.
"Let's get real," said an animated Brown. "I'm proposing 5 percent more in your budget. You're proposing 11.6 percent. How do you make up the gap?"
And with that, the governor made clear that in his mind, changes in higher education are a matter of both mission and money. His proposed state budget offers the University of California and Cal State systems each about $250 million more in the fiscal year beginning on July 1. And he suggested that the only alternative to changes like more online education is higher tuition -- something he's already made clear he finds unacceptable.
"There's not a luxury of sitting in the present trajectory," said Brown.
Just if, when, and how the state's two university systems would employ more online instruction remains to be seen. UC regents were told Thursday that only 116 undergraduate courses are now offered, for credit, via an online platform. And that's the total for the entire 10 campus system. Many more are offered as part of UC's continuing education efforts.
"It gives us the ability to serve more people, and to me that's so important," said Sherry Lansing, chair of the UC regent board.
But UC leaders clearly seemed to be struggling with the objectives. More current students learning via computer? New students, who wouldn't otherwise attend a UC school, learning at a distance and paying fees that supplement the traditional classroom setting? Or what?
Some critics say that lack of a clearly defined goal is exactly the problem with the current discussion of more online courses.
"Every time they talk, they keep on shifting it," said Bob Samuels, a UCLA lecturer and president of the UC Federation of Teachers. "First it's about quality. No, it's about making money. No, it's about doing things more efficiently."
And in truth, the mission may be a little of all of those.
"It's not the time to be timid," said University of California president Mark Yudof, who told regents and the audience that no one should expect major changes in state funding for higher education anytime soon.
The state is expected to give UC leaders $10 million to boost online education efforts. Discussions on how to begin began in late 2012, and a larger university-wide summit on the issue is scheduled for this spring.
As for Governor Brown, the initiative presents an opportunity to do all of the things he seems to like best: lower costs, higher innovation, and the need to think big.
In remarks to reporters during a break, Brown made it clear that, pointed barbs about money notwithstanding, he's not interested in picking a fight with higher education leaders.
"I've had the experience of pushing the university," said Brown with a nod to his clashes with the culture of the state's higher education system in his first stint as governor:
"I've learned things. Now, I'm working with them. Collaboration, inspiration, persuasion, as opposed to blaming, shaming, and coercing."