A Wary Academia on Edge of Cyberspace


When UCLA administrators announced last fall that they would create Internet Web sites for nearly every undergraduate class, they expected a chorus of cheers to greet this newest step into academic cyberspace.

Then came the jeers. And they came from a group that looked unusually distinguished for college rabble-rousers--the faculty.

At one meeting, a white-haired professor in gray tweed warned colleagues not to allow their course materials on the World Wide Web without a formal protest. Another in a natty bow tie cautioned that UCLA could not be trusted with their ideas--hadn’t administrators tried to cash in on a medical school staffer’s plot for a TV hospital drama?


Then English professor Jonathan Post stood, folded his arms across his blue blazer and declared: “I’m here because I’m a techno-paranoid.”

No one laughed.

Indeed, although many university faculty members embrace the Internet and other tools of computerized instruction, others--particularly the old guard--are suspicious of higher education’s mad dash into the Information Age:

Will bosses eavesdrop on their online exchanges, chilling academic freedom? Or will outsiders hack into supposedly secure Web sites and steal their ideas?

How can professors keep their independence if schools are seduced by profits from corporations that mass market online courses?

Although it is easier to answer questions at your leisure by e-mail, what is lost when faculty lose face-to-face contact with students?

Does “distance learning” diminish a professor’s ability to inspire as a mentor or motivate as a nag?

And with the likes of Microsoft--Microsoft!--moving into the college market, how long will it be before online courses push the delete button on teaching jobs?

“The real problem,” said Mary Burgan, secretary-general of the American Assn. of University Professors, “is that administrators and lawmakers are selling technology as a substitute for faculty.”

Such concerns have touched off a frenzy of e-mail around California State University’s 22 campuses since a partnership was proposed with Fujitsu, GTE, Hughes Electronics and Microsoft.

The firms promise to spend $300 million on a fiber-optic backbone connecting the campuses in exchange for the right to sell a projected $3.8 billion in high-tech products over the next decade.

So just try convincing James L. Wood, a San Diego State sociologist, that the online network won’t be used--despite official denials--to profit off faculty work.

“I don’t know how they can make the kind of money they want to make without selling faculty lectures,” Wood said.

“Will professors who teach, say, Biology 101 find they are no longer needed if such introductory courses can be taught online by star professors on other campuses?”

To leaders of academia, especially in California--the home of Silicon Valley and the birthplace of the Internet--such fears are hopelessly behind the times. They see the computer as the perfect tool to bring the university together through instant communications--while sharing its wisdom around the world.

Today’s students own laptops and expect dorm rooms to be wired for easy Internet hookups, enabling them to e-mail their professors at 2 a.m.--or make dates. The fledgling California Virtual University already offers more than 700 classes from dozens of colleges. Schools in 14 other states are plunging into distance education through the Western Governors University.

No one has pushed this new era more than University of California President Richard C. Atkinson, whose own research was touting the use of computers to teach math three decades ago. But even he considers it healthy that there’s skepticism about cyberspace.

“There is nothing wrong with paranoia,” he said. “In the early stages, there may be some missteps. It’s important for people to question these things. There should be alarmists out there.”

Spreading the Word

When it comes to ringing alarm bells on campus, few have an edge over David F. Noble, a social historian whose books focus on how technology has displaced workers and altered society.

At York University in Toronto, Noble was a leader of a faculty strike last spring in which technology was a major issue. After 55 days on the picket line, professors won a unique provision in their contract: None can be forced to use technology in classrooms or deliver courses over the Internet.

A visiting professor this year at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Noble has spread his gospel by giving talks at UCLA, UC Irvine and other campuses. His writings also have made the rounds--ironically, via the Internet.

His article, “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education,” argues that “universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education.”

The first phase began a decade ago, he asserts, when changes in patent laws gave universities greater incentives to market their research. Now, he adds, slick new multimedia vehicles make it even easier to profit off professors’ knowledge, through copyrighted videos, courseware, CD-ROMs and Web sites. And schools can shave costs by employing “fewer teachers and classrooms.”

Meanwhile, companies such as Microsoft, Disney and Simon & Schuster are moving into an “edutainment” market that Lehman Brothers estimates will be worth billions of dollars a year.

Noble, 52, has taken special interest in UCLA--where the Internet began in 1969--because of its move to create Web sites for all 3,300 undergraduate courses in the College of Letters and Science by the end of this academic year, with or without faculty blessing.

“They have gone after the dock workers, the auto workers and the steel workers,” he said. “And now, they are coming after us. A lot of faculty say, ‘There is no way they can automate what I do.’ And they are right. But they will automate anyway and take the loss in the quality of education. This is not about education. This is about making money.”

After Noble spoke at a UCLA luncheon, one professor said he heard colleagues ask: “Why are we being forced to do these things? Are you going to take my courses and offer them to the world? These courses are our intellectual children, and we don’t want anybody mucking around with them.”

UCLA administrators have been scrambling to calm the waters. In a March 4 memo, Brian Copenhaver, provost of the College of Letters and Science, assured department chairs that there are “no plans” to use Web sites commercially and that “no member of the faculty will be ‘mandated’ to make any use of the Web that he or she finds inappropriate.”

Content Criticized

The Web sites have drawn some student protests, one outside the chancellor’s office. But their main gripe is the $10 to $14 add-on fee per course to help fund a $4-million Educational Enhancement Initiative, which also includes Web sites for each student.

Students’ main criticism of the class sites is that most are, well, boring--merely online versions of handouts they get in class anyway.

For the most part, that’s not the doing of the professors. They don’t have to do anything to the sites, which are created by technicians using the syllabus and other materials instructors routinely turn over to their departments.

To an outsider, a syllabus may not seem like much. It’s usually an outline of topics covered in a course, including homework, required readings and a bibliography.

To faculty, however, the syllabus is the distillation of years of knowledge and teaching experience. The best, they say, are essentially the outline for a book.

The UCLA Faculty Assn. newsletter dredges up a celebrated episode from the 1970s, when Gail Sheehy got a UCLA psychiatry professor’s permission to sit in on his popular course on adult life stages, inspiring her book “Passages.” The professor filed a plagiarism suit and won a settlement.

“Easier access to course syllabi on the Web will make ‘borrowing’ of this kind even more frequent,” the newsletter said.

In the past, only a small percentage of professors--usually in medicine, engineering and hard sciences--worried about such matters.

If a professor’s research using campus laboratories led to the discovery of, say, gene-splicing, the university would claim ownership of the patent and share the royalties. But a professor who wrote a textbook about medieval Europe kept the copyright and worked out his own deal with a publisher.

Now, new commercial possibilities have caught the eye of college business offices.

At UCLA, music professor Robert Winter--working outside the university--mixed a dazzling display of sound and images on CD-ROMs that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made him rich enough to build a big house in Pacific Palisades, with its own multimedia studio.

So the school has placed him in charge of the UCLA Center for Digital Arts, with the goal of inspiring others to do cutting-edge work on campus, under negotiated deals for sharing the take.

“The more commercial potential,” Winter said, “the larger the share the university will offer the faculty member.”

When universities traditionally ponder profits, he noted, “the social sciences, the humanities and arts have been marginalized. But in this new digital revolution, they are at the center.”

The shifting rules produce uncertainty among professors who never have had to share their intellectual property rights with their employer.

Then comes Noble, passing around documents covering online classes for the huge UCLA Extension program--suggesting that the school will own rights to courses.

Noble has found similar language in UC Berkeley Extension’s contract with America Online and the University of Colorado’s contract with Real Education, a private firm working with Microsoft.

All these, he argues, are “beachheads” in a commercial incursion into academia. He wonders what will become of their classes as they are marketed for a mass audience.

“We’re talking about the ‘Disney-fication’ of courses,” Noble said. “They will be packaged to meet the market, just like television. Why settle for me, when you can have the writers for ‘Seinfeld’ write the script? That’s where we’re headed.”

Uneasy Alliance

Then there’s the specter of Microsoft, inspiring fears like those aroused in other eras by the Rockefellers, Standard Oil and other symbols of capitalist power.

This fake news story has been making the rounds of campuses throughout the state:

“Microsoft Corp. announced today it will be acquiring the California State University for an undisclosed sum. ‘It’s actually a logical extension of our growth,’ said Microsoft chairman and CEO Bill Gates.”

The mock news story--spread by e-mail, of course--also has Cal State’s chancellor “enthusiastically” becoming a Microsoft vice president at “several times” his $250,000 salary. In a prank with a similar theme, Humboldt State University students changed a campus sign to read, “Microsoft State University.”

To UC Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes, such parodies reflect a human need to ventilate their anxieties through humor. The fear in this case? “That technology is not serving us, it’s controlling us.”

Cal State administrators fueled that apprehension by proposing the biggest deal ever between a public university and the private sector. Under the proposal, Cal State and its four partners would form a company to build high-speed computer and telephone networks in the 22-campus system, the largest group of universities in the nation.

Cal State would contribute its $95-million-a-year technology budget and the four companies would kick in $300 million. To recoup that, the companies would get first crack at selling everything from laptop computers to pagers and telephone service to 336,000 students and thousands of faculty members, staff and alumni.

University officials consider this a creative way to finance badly needed campus technology in an era of declining dollars from Sacramento and widespread opposition to raising student fees.

They liken the deal to paving the Information Superhighway right to each campus lab, classroom and dorm room. The private partners, they say, will exercise no control over who or what speeds along it.

The assurances, however, have not ended concerns that the private companies will turn this highway into a training ground for their new products--or worse, render instructors into road kill.

The breadth of the opposition “took us by surprise,” said James Rosser, president of Cal State L.A. and head of a systemwide committee on technology.

To reduce faculty concerns, the university’s negotiators first eliminated any portions of the proposal that would give the companies influence over online course content. Now they are debating whether to ask Microsoft to step down as a partner.

“We don’t want to get sucked into the national debate over whether Microsoft is a monopoly,” said Richard West, Cal State’s senior vice chancellor for business and finance.

The negotiators are trying to wrap up the deal quickly so faculty can review it before it’s presented to the Cal State trustees in mid-May. Waiting longer would delay a decision to the summer and probably set off complaints from professors that the university was trying to sneak it through while they were away.

Such faculty members insist they are not modern-day Luddites, the 19th century English textile workers who smashed labor-saving machinery.

“I’m a mathematical physicist, so I’ve had an occasion to use computers in my research,” said David Klein of Cal State Northridge. “They are valuable tools, but there are limits.”

Like most critics of online instruction, Klein views himself as a guardian of the university’s core mission to broadly educate students about themselves and their subject matters.

He cringes at the prospect of students taking courses in their living rooms, calling that “an exotic version of a bachelor’s degree by mail.”

Haves and Have-Nots

Wood, the San Diego sociologist, argues that you would never see this at elite private colleges. Sure, they have wired dorms and will sell some training online, as Stanford University does to Silicon Valley engineers. But Wood doubts such places would teach undergraduates philosophy by computer.

“Down the ladder, when you get to community colleges, where there are poorer students of ethnic minority backgrounds, this is the group ticketed for distance education because it is good enough for them,” he said.

Of the 771 courses available through the California Virtual University, 323 are offered by community colleges--and only 99 by the most elite state system, the University of California.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the discontent seems more prevalent among senior faculty, brought up in an era when ideas were scratched out on legal pads. Although most seem to have embraced the digital revolution to some degree--dashing off electronic missives to colleagues around the globe--even near-universal e-mail systems are suspect to some.

After years of wrangling, the University of California is about to adopt a policy to reassure faculty that administrators will be able to monitor e-mail over the campuses’ computer networks only in suspected cases of sexual harassment, criminal activity, violations of collective bargaining contracts and for various emergencies. In practice, e-mail monitoring only occurs a handful of times a year on any single campus.

That’s not enough peace of mind for some professors. Sally Stein, a UC Irvine art historian, wants no worry that someone might be eavesdropping.

“I don’t engage in extremely private communications with my students, but sometimes things come up,” she said. “This is particularly true with undergraduates, who are late adolescents sorting out a lot of things in their lives.”

Her solution? She’s switched to a commercial e-mail system.