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Technology and the Commodification of Higher Education

Technology and the Commodification of Higher Education

By David F. Noble, Monthly Review, March 2002

The following article is adapted from David Noble's new book, Digital
Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education,
just published by
Monthly Review Press. Noble, a professor at York University, should
need no introduction to MR readers. For the past three decades he has
established himself as one of the great scholars and historians of
technology, demystifying the subject and placing technology in the
necessary social and political economic context. His publications
include America by Design: Science, Technology, and The Rise of
Corporate Capitalism
(1977), Forces of Production: A Social History
of Industrial Automation
(1984), and The Religion of Technology: The
Divinity of Man and The Spirit of Invention
(1997, all published by
Alfred A. Knopf).

For nearly all of that time, Noble has been a critic of the
"business-model" of higher education in the United States, an effort
to subject learning to marketing practices, bottom-line return on
investment, and capital accumulation, without regard to the demands
of learning and scholarship. As Noble points out, the use of these
techniques are all too widespread in this country's universities.
These days they feature prominently in the push for "distance
education," Noble's critique of which is central to this article and
to the argument in his book.

On the basis of his scholarly accomplishments, a search committee
selected Noble in 2001 to be appointed to the endowed Woodsworth
Professorship in the Humanities at Simon Fraser University. In
violation of every academic norm, the administration is blocking the
appointment, presumably on political grounds. Noble's criticism of
online education and the corporatization of academia in Digital
Diploma Mills brings together and crystallizes his pacesetting work
in this area.

-The Monthly Review Editors

All discussion of distance education these days invariably turns into
a discussion of technology, an endless meditation on the wonders of
computer-mediated instruction. Identified with a revolution in
technology, distance education has thereby assumed the aura of
innovation and the appearance of a revolution itself, a bold
departure from tradition, a signal step toward a preordained and
radically transformed higher educational future. In the face of such
a seemingly inexorable technology-driven destiny and the seductive
enchantment of technological transcendence, skeptics are silenced and
all questions are begged. But we pay a price for this technological
fetishism, which so dominates and delimits discussion. For it
prevents us from perceiving the more fundamental significance of
today's drive for distance education, which, at bottom, is not really
about technology, nor is it anything new. We have been here before.

In essence, the current mania for distance education is about the
commodification of higher education, of which computer technology is
merely the latest medium, and it is, in reality, more a rerun than a
revolution, bearing striking resemblance to a past today's
enthusiasts barely know about or care to acknowledge, an earlier
episode in the commodification of higher education known as
correspondence instruction or, more quaintly, home study. Then as
now, distance education has always been not so much technology-driven
as profit-driven, whatever the mode of delivery. The common
denominator linking the two episodes is not technology but the
pursuit of profit in the guise and name of higher education. A
careful examination of the earlier, pre-computer, episode in distance
education enables us to place the current mania not only in
historical perspective but also in its proper political-economic
context. The chief aim here is to try to shift our attention from
technology to political economy, and from fantasies about the future
to the far more sobering lessons of the past.

It is important to spell out what is meant by both education and
commodification, since these terms are often used with little
precision. To begin with, education must be distinguished from
training (which is arguably more suitable for distance delivery),
because the two are so often conflated. In essence, training involves
the honing of a person's mind so that it can be used for the purposes
of someone other than that person. Training thus typically entails a
radical divorce between knowledge and the self. Here knowledge is
usually defined as a set of skills or a body of information designed
to be put to use, to become operational, only in a context determined
by someone other than the trained person; in this context the
assertion of self is not only counterproductive, it is subversive to
the enterprise. Education is the exact opposite of training in that
it entails not the disassociation but the utter integration of
knowledge and the self, in a word, self-knowledge. Here knowledge is
defined by and, in turn, helps to define, the self. Knowledge and the
knowledgeable person are basically inseparable.

Education is a process that necessarily entails an interpersonal (not
merely interactive) relationship between people-student and teacher
(and student and student) that aims at individual and collective
self-knowledge. (Whenever people recall their educational experiences
they tend to remember, above all, not courses or subjects or the
information imparted but people, people who changed their minds or
their lives, people who made a difference in their developing sense
of themselves. It is a sign of our current confusion about education
that we must be reminded of this obvious fact: that the relationship
between people is central to the educational experience.) Education
is a process of becoming for all parties, based upon mutual
recognition and validation and centering upon the formation and
evolution of identity. The actual content of the educational
experience is defined by this relationship between people and the
chief determinant of quality education is the establishment and
enrichment of this relationship.

Like education, the word commodification (or commoditization) is used
rather loosely with regard to education and some precision might help
the discussion. A commodity is something created, grown, produced, or
manufactured for exchange on the market. There are, of course, some
things which are bought and sold on the market which were not created
for that purpose, such as labor and land-what the political economist
Karl Polanyi referred to as "fictitious commodities." Most
educational offerings, although divided into units of credit and
exchanged for tuition, are fictitious commodities in that they are
not created by the educator strictly with this purpose in mind. Here
we will be using the term commodity, not in this fictitious, more
expansive, sense but rather in its classical, restricted sense, to
mean something expressly created for market exchange. The
commodification of higher education, then, refers to the deliberate
transformation of the educational process into commodity form, for
the purpose of commercial transaction.

The commodification of education requires the interruption of this
fundamental educational process and the disintegration and
distillation of the educational experience into discrete, reified,
and ultimately saleable things or packages of things. In the first
step toward commodification, attention is shifted from the experience
of the people involved in the educational process to the production
and inventorying of an assortment of fragmented "course materials":
syllabi, lectures, lessons, and exams (now referred to in the
aggregate as "content"). As anyone familiar with higher education
knows, these common instruments of instruction barely reflect what
actually takes place in the educational experience, and lend an
illusion of order and predictability to what is, at its best, an
essentially unscripted and undetermined process. Second, these
fragments are removed or "alienated" from their original context, the
actual educational process itself, and from their producers, the
teachers, and are assembled as "courses," which take on an existence
independent of and apart from those who created and gave flesh to
them. This is perhaps the most critical step in commodity formation.
The alienation of ownership of and control over course material
(through surrender of copyright) is crucial to this step. Finally,
the assembled "courses" are exchanged for a profit on the market,
which determines their value, by their "owners," who may or may not
have any relationship to the original creators and participants in
the educational process. At the expense of the original integrity of
the educational process, instruction has here been transformed into a
set of deliverable commodities, and the end of education has become
not self-knowledge but the making of money. In the wake of this
transformation, teachers become commodity producers and deliverers,
subject to the familiar regime of commodity production in any other
industry, and students become consumers of yet more commodities. The
relationship between teacher and student is thus reestablished, in an
alienated mode, through the medium of the market, and the buying and
selling of commodities takes on the appearance of education. But it
is, in reality, only a shadow of education, an assemblage of pieces
without the whole.

Again, under this new regime, painfully familiar to skilled workers
in every industry since the dawn of industrial capitalism, educators
confront the harsh realities of commodity production: speed-up,
routinization of work, greater work discipline and managerial
supervision, reduced autonomy, job insecurity, employer appropriation
of the fruits of their labor, and, above all, the insistent
managerial pressures to reduce labor costs in order to turn a profit.
Thus, the commoditization of instruction leads invariably to the
"proletarianization" or, more politely, the "deprofessionalization"
of the professoriate. (As investors shift their focus from health
care to education, the deprofessionalization experienced by
physicians is being extended to professors, who now face what some
Wall Street spokesmen are already calling EMOs (education maintenance
organizations), the education counterpart to HMOs (health maintenance

But there is a paradox at the core of this transformation. Quality
education is labor-intensive; it depends upon a low teacher-student
ratio, and significant interaction between the two parties-the one
utterly unambiguous result of a century of educational research. Any
effort to offer quality in education must therefore presuppose a
substantial and sustained investment in educational labor, whatever
the medium of instruction. The requirements of commodity production,
however, undermine the labor-intensive foundation of quality
education (and with it, quality products people will willingly pay
for). Pedagogical promise and economic efficiency are thus in
contradiction. Here is the Achilles heel of distance education. In
the past as well as the present, distance educators have always
insisted that they offer a kind of intimate and individualized
instruction not possible in the crowded, competitive environment of
the campus. Theirs is an improved, enhanced education. To make their
enterprise profitable, however, they have been compelled to reduce
their instructional costs to a minimum, thereby undermining their
pedagogical promise. The invariable result has been not only a
degraded labor force but a degraded product as well. Thus, what is at
stake in the struggle over the commodification of education is not
only the professional autonomy and working conditions of educators
but our understanding of education itself.

* * *

In the past five years, nearly all post-secondary institutions have
climbed aboard the distance education bandwagon in search of new
revenues and in fear for their piece of higher education turf, only
to discover the hard way the harsh realities of their enterprise. At
the same time, however, in league with their private-sector partners,
they have successfully sought and secured taxpayer subsidy of their
online efforts, thereby partially offsetting their losses and the
absence of any real market demand. In addition, university
administrators have learned that the technology of online education,
whether cost effective or not, has afforded them a relatively
disarming way to restructure their institutions to their managerial
advantage. Meanwhile, faculty resistance to this restructuring, and
to the deprofessionalization of the professoriate that it entails,
has increased and gained coherence and confidence.

As more colleges and universities have moved squarely into the realm
of commercial online education, alone or in collaboration with
private-sector partners, the distinction between nonprofit and
for-profit institutions has been blurred to the vanishing point. Not
so very long ago, the post-secondary establishment railed against
their for-profit online counterparts (in particular the University of
Phoenix and Jones International), in defense of their own monopoly of
higher education. The major trade associations like the American
Council on Education and the American Association of Universities
indignantly opposed formal accreditation of the pariah "for-profits"
and lobbied virtuously against any relaxation of federal requirements
for student aid that might support their "virtual" rivals. Today,
these same organizations are striving to keep up with the Joneses.
Joining forces with their erstwhile adversaries, they now rail
against any and all state regulations that might cramp their own
for-profit propensities, especially by limiting their part-time and
distance-education offerings. In particular, they now vigorously
oppose federal requirements for student aid eligibility-such as the
"twelve-hour rule" defining the minimum full-time course load and the
"50 percent rule" restricting institutions from offering more than
half of their courses at a distance-which were intended to safeguard
public support of quality education against the fraud of diploma
mills. In essence, universities are disconcertingly departing from
academic tradition. Not only are they setting up their distinctly
for-profit subsidiaries, like Columbia's Fathom or New York
University's NYU Online. They are fast becoming de facto unabashed
"for-profits" themselves, and doing so with abandon.

The academic rush to commercial enterprise has been a rocky ride for
most institutions, however, especially in the wake of the dot-com
collapse. The unanticipated costs associated with the development of
online capability combined with an unstable and uncertain, and highly
competitive, market belatedly gave even the most ardent enthusiasts
pause. "Reality is setting in among many distance education
administrators," reported the Chronicle of Higher Education. "They
are realizing that putting programs online doesn't necessarily bring
riches." Accordingly, now "distance-education leaders predict that
some administrators will slow or stop their expansion into online
learning." Even the vanguard of private-sector online-education
companies, whose siren song seduced many an administrator, felt the
squeeze and cut back. E College laid off thirty-five of its
employees; UNEXT eliminated fifty-two people; and Onlinelearning.net
reportedly trimmed a third of its staff. What industry analyst Trace
Urdan of E.R. Hambrecht and Company said about UNEXT could be said
about them all: puffed up by investors with dreams of IPOs (initial
public offerings), they are now "dealing with the realities of the
private market."

Facing a fickle future, the intrepid entrepreneurs of online
education turned in time-honored fashion to the taxpayer to bail them
out. In addition to lobbying for indirect public subsidy through
federal student aid, they have also become direct beneficiaries of
taxpayer largesse through the Education Department's expanded
Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships, which they lobbied vigorously
both to create and enlarge. Most importantly, however, these strident
capitalists have done what so many of their forebears have done
before them when they found themselves in trouble: they have called
in the cavalry.

After several years of lobbying by vendors and universities and their
trade associations like Educom/Educause and the American Academy of
Distance Education and Training, the Clinton-Gore White House, by
means of its Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, secured the
cooperation of the Department of Defense in artificially creating a
market for these champions of free enterprise, at taxpayer expense.
Announced first by the Arm, in August 2000, and then followed up by
the Navy and Air Force, the combined armed services decided to
dedicate almost a billion dollars over five years to provide
taxpayer-subsidized university-based distance education for
active-duty personnel (and eventually their families as well).
Overnight, the Department of Defense became the largest consumer of
distance education in the land. The pioneers of online education had
at last found their missing market.

The story is familiar. Throughout the history of industrial
capitalism the military has served as midwife and handmaid to private
enterprise, supplying taxpayer support for technical innovation and
thereafter providing a taxpayer-created market for new processes and
products. The Army did it early on with interchangeable parts
manufacture for muskets, which became the model for the so-called
American system of manufactures. The Navy did it with the revolution
in shipping and longshoring called "containerization." And the Air
Force did it with the automation of metalworking by means of
"numerical control," starting in the aerospace industry, which gave
rise to computer-based batch-process manufacturing.

These epochal military-sponsored developments produced a radical
restructuring of these industries, not only in terms of industrial
process and product design and manufacture, but also in terms of
labor relations, signaling the de-skilling and ultimate demise of
gunsmiths, dockworkers, and machinists. Together the armed
services-the leading training organizations in the world and the
primary source of nearly all instructional technologies of the last
half century-are now undertaking to underwrite a similarly radical
restructuring of the higher education industry, at the expense of the

In August 2000, the Department of Defense sponsored an industry
conference to kick off the new military distance-education
initiative, get feedback from key industry players, and give the same
players an opportunity to position themselves at the public trough.
Over a thousand vendors, administrators, and military personnel were
invited, but no students or faculty, whose exclusion followed a
pattern established earlier with gunsmiths, dockworkers, and
machinists. Speakers at the conference hailed from Educause and UNEXT
rather than from the arts and sciences.

Later that month, the Army revealed its six-hundred-million-dollar
distance-education initiative. Citing free distance education as an
incentive for recruitment and reenlistment, the Army announced plans
to issue a primary contract with a private-sector "integrator" and
subcontracts with other private vendors, colleges, and universities,
whose staffs, in the wake of the industry conference, were no doubt
already at work on proposals for a piece of the action. "The Army
will become the largest broker and customer of distance learning in
the United States," the Chronicle of Higher Education noted,
describing the Army program as a "bonanza for colleges looking to
either create or expand online offerings," a bold initiative that
"could reassure college administrators venturing into distance
learning." "This is very concrete," Secretary of the Army Louis
Caldera declared. "If you are trying to develop this type of program,
you can now go to your own president and say, 'Look, there is a huge
market out there.'" In January 2001, the Army announced the
successful bidders for the Army University Access Online contracts.
The accounting powerhouse PriceWaterhouse Coopers was selected to be
the program "integrator," having won out in the competition with IBM,
Arthur Andersen, and Electronic Data Systems. The initial roster of
the program team included ten private firms and twenty-nine colleges,
and other participants would be added later. Corporate partners
included Blackboard, Compaq, Fiberlink, Intel Online Services, and
PeopleSoft. Academic partners included Florida State University,
Indiana University, Kansas State University, Penn State, SUNY Empire
State College, the University of Washington, Utah State University,
and the University of Massachusetts. "This is the largest e-learning
program of its kind," bellowed Michael Sousa, director of Price
Waterhouse Cooper's worldwide corporate training program. Judging
from the effects of similar military programs upon other industries,
the Department of Defense distance-education program is intended to
have and is bound to have far-reaching consequences for higher
education. Distance-education enthusiast Bob Kerrey, former senator
and now New School University president, explained the potential
significance of the program. "Not only is this a forward-looking
investment, but an investment that will have an impact on everything
that is going on in all of our educational communities." As the
Chronicle of Higher Education observed, the program "will likely spur
the development of new methods and technologies to provide distance
learning and online courses at every level of education"; in the
process, "it will create a new kind of model for delivering

And just what kind of model might that be? Again, judging from
earlier military experience in other industries, it is most likely to
entail the familiar patterns of command, control, and precisely
specified performance, in accordance with the hallmark military
procurement principles of uniformity, standardization,
modularization, capital-intensivity, system compatibility,
interchangeability, measurability, and accountability-in short, a
model of education as a machine, with standardized products and
prescribed processes. The influence of such extra-academic military
criteria on higher education is bound to reinforce and extend further
already accelerating extra-academic commercial tendencies toward
training and deprofessionalization.

The U.S. military has long been the world's leader in on-the-job
training and has, over the last century, developed and perfected a
vast array of training techniques and technologies, many of which
have subsequently been adopted by the civilian education system. The
goal is the efficient training of precision-skilled personnel
prepared to do a predetermined job according to specifications
whenever and wherever necessary. The military (and now corporate)
training slogan "just-in-time education," which derives from the
famous Japanese system of inventory control, says it all: skilled
personnel or, more precisely, the disembodied skills themselves (the
person, presumably the focus of education, drops out of the picture)
are viewed as inventory items in organizational planning. The
military training regime is designed and refined to produce this
product, in the shortest amount of time, with the least resources,
and to the greatest effect. This is the model of education that will
now be imposed upon higher education via the Department of Defense
distance-education program.

According to Diane Stoskopf, director of the Army Continuing
Education System, the specifications for university involvement in
the military distance-education program "will be very detailed."
Course content, curricula, and teaching methods, transparent in
online format, will all be subject to military prescription,
monitoring, and review and, hence, to implicit ideological censorship
and a routinized abridgement of academic freedom-the customer, after
all, is always right. All of the elements of instruction will be
standardized and rendered interchangeable (through modularized
"reusable content objects") in order to eliminate error and
redundancy among subcontractors and guarantee quality control.
"Getting schools to standardize their way of doing business is going
to be a major obstacle," Stoskopf acknowledged. That such military
standardization might entail an abandonment or relaxation of academic
standards is also readily acknowledged. "Colleges in the Army program
may also find themselves pushing against traditional academic
boundaries to make the distance education program work," Stoskopf
noted, such as giving academic credit in "non-traditional forms."

If the military distance-education program tilts toward a
university-sanctioned regimen of skills training at the expense of
academic norms and educational quality, it also accelerates the move
toward the automation and deprofessionalization of university
instruction and constitutes yet another threat to the very occupation
of the professoriate. The first casualties of the program will be the
military's own in-house training staff, whose work will be outsourced
via the Internet to the universities. But university staff will
surely pay a price as well. As the military, in collaboration with
the university administration, underwrites an expansion of university
online infrastructure and dictates the form and content of course
development and delivery, faculty will face further abridgement of
their academic freedom and autonomy, greater managerial supervision
and discipline, a degradation of their working conditions and a
deskilling of their work, the elimination of "redundant" courses, an
appropriation of their intellectual property rights, a weakening of
their collective bargaining power, and, ultimately, a reduction in
their numbers. In short, the military presence will magnify, at
taxpayer expense, the untoward impact that commercialized distance
education is already having on institutions of higher education.

Whether financially remunerative or not-and with enough direct and
indirect taxpayer subsidies who's to know or care?-the development of
online education is nevertheless enabling administrators to
restructure their institutions and labor relations to their
managerial advantage, at faculty expense. At the heart of this
transformation is the Taylorization of instructional labor, in which
the teaching function is broken down into discrete components and
assigned to different detail workers, a process described by Adam
Smith and Charles Babbage at the dawn of the industrial revolution
and perfected by Frederick Taylor, the father of so-called scientific
management. This transformation is well underway in academia. At NYU
Online, for example, which considers itself in the vanguard of
institutional change, the job of instruction is assigned to a team of
designated specialists in course design, development, content,
delivery, and distribution. Where once a single professor would
perform all of these tasks as an integrated whole, the detail workers
now do only their part, with far less control over the process and
substantially less pay-precisely the pattern established long ago
with the shift from craft to industrial labor that culminated in the
assembly worker of modern industry. As Bill Scheuerman, president of
the New York State United University Professions, accurately
described what is happening from the viewpoint of the faculty, it
amounts to nothing less than the "disassembling and deskilling of the

The deskilled job description that emerges from this process of
deprofessionalization will no doubt become the template for future
generations of academic labor. "I think the whole concept of adjunct
professorship is going to be very important," predicts NYU Online's
CEO, Gordon Macomber. Indeed, in the wake of this transformation of
higher education thus far, we already witness the appearance of a new
archetypal university instructor, one perfectly suited to the
investor-imagined "university of the future." With wonder and
excitement, the Chronicle of Higher Education heralds the advent of a
"new type of professor," namely, the "rapidly emerging type of
distance education faculty member." This latest incarnation of
university instructor hails not from academia but from the "corporate
world." For this new breed, hired more for their "business savvy than
their degree," "a focus on the bottom line is normal; tenure isn't."
Says one such distance educator, "I love not only the teaching but
the selling of it."

In this decidedly commercial ethos of distance education,
administrators are predictably trying to win the cooperation of
faculty by offering them a piece of the action. This is the latest
strategy for getting the faculty to give up their intellectual
property rights to course materials. Several high-profile
"experiments" are underway, at North Texas University and Stevens
Institute, for example. At both institutions, faculty are now given
the incentive of royalty payments for the use of their course
materials by the university as well as a part of the revenues from
the licensing of these materials to other institutions. And, indeed,
a good number of shortsighted faculty are trading their ownership and
control for a fatter pay envelope, and even boasting about it. But
the last laugh may not be theirs. At Stevens, for example, faculty
may take their course materials with them, if and when they leave,
only if they pay Stevens a licensing fee. More important, fixated on
their own bottom line, they have lost sight of the larger picture of
the deprofessionalization of the faculty, to which they are wittingly
or unwittingly contributing through their actions, and they have
failed to understand that the point of retaining professional
ownership and control over the content of courses is not the
enrichment of the professoriate but the preservation of quality
higher education.

Of course, not everyone is buying the new model of higher education.
According to a Chronicle of Higher Education report, a recent
Pentagon appropriation bill that includes some funding for distance
education stipulates that the Army must continue using traditional
classroom instruction in a training program for students at
historically black colleges and universities rather than the distance
education preferred by the Army. Apparently some members of Congress
representing the interests of black constituents view distance
education as a degraded, less valuable, form of education and have
insisted that their constituents receive the genuine article instead.
According to some, a "digital divide" separates the haves from the
have-nots in that only the privileged have access to computer
technology, further disadvantaging the less privileged. In the case
of distance education, however, the digital divide is turned on its
head, with the have-nots being compelled to take their courses online
while the haves get to do it in person. The dissenting clause in the
appropriation bill is evidence that at least some are beginning to
catch on to this reality and defy it.

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, meanwhile, some of
the elite have come to understand as well that distance education
represents but a shadow of a genuine education. In 2001 the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it is
planning to put all of its course material on websites for free
Internet distribution. Of course, MIT enjoys a secure market niche
and plenty of funding, which affords it a degree of freedom unknown
to most universities and enables it therefore to avoid some of the
competitive compulsions of the higher education community. But the
decision also reflects an understanding that students pay close to
$40,000 a year to enroll at MIT for more than course materials. Of
course, there are the benefits of a coveted degree and career-making
connections, but there is also the quality education that comes from
direct contact with fine teachers. As one promoter of the website
distribution idea, civil engineering professor Steven Lerman,
explained, "the syllabus and lecture notes are not an education, the
education is what you do with the materials." No MIT bachelor's
degree is offered online.

Such skepticism about distance education on the part of both the
elite and the socially disadvantaged reflects a growing
sophistication about what exactly is at stake here. Another sign is
the growing struggle over the future of higher education, the context
in which these Digital Diploma Mills articles were framed, and, in
particular, the increasing and maturing resistance on the part of
faculty organizations. A critical moment in this evolution was
reached at roughly the same time the Department of Defense launched
its distance-education initiative. At the end of August 2000, a
potentially historic meeting was held at the Carnegie Institute in
Washington. The meeting was called by the National Coalition for
Universities in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization founded
in 1983 by the author, Leonard Minsky, Ralph Nader, and others to
fight against the corporatization of higher education. It brought
together the leaders of the most progressive faculty unions in the
United States and Canada. In attendance were representatives from the
California Faculty Association, the union of the Cal State system and
the largest higher education affiliate of the National Education
Association; the United University Professions, the union of the SUNY
system and the largest higher education affiliate of the American
Federation of Teachers; the Professional Staff Congress, the union of
the CUNY system, the largest urban university system in the United
States; the American Association of University Professors; and the
Canadian Association of University Teachers, the umbrella federation
of faculty associations in Canada. The purpose of the meeting was to
explore the possibility of establishing a common agency and strategy
to fight against the commercial hijacking of public higher education
and the entrenchment of a new "intellectual property regime" in

Faculty organizations are becoming ever more alert to the fact that
seemingly benign, progressive, and "technology-driven" administration
distance-education initiatives may constitute a threat to faculty
autonomy, intellectual property, and job security. At the same time,
they are recognizing that faculty represent the last line of defense
against the wholesale commercialization of academia, of which the
commodification of instruction is just the latest manifestation, and
that their fight is of a piece with the larger effort to preserve and
enhance public higher education. They are fighting back, therefore,
in myriad ways and on both local and national levels. The Washington
meeting signalled a crystallization and potential consolidation of
these struggles, and focused not upon this or that particular battle
but upon the entire regime of intellectual property itself as
inimical to the culture of academia. Decades after academia divested
itself of classified research on behalf of the national security
state on the grounds that such practice was in conflict with the free
and open exchange of ideas to which university culture is dedicated,
the academy has adopted practices on behalf of private corporations
that have the very same corrosive consequences.

Participants expressed their concerns about the conversion of
intellectual activity into commodity form for commercial sale, by
means of patents, copyright, and licenses on these; about the
resulting incremental enclosure of the "knowledge commons," through
an array of proprietary arrangements, into a patchwork of private
monopolies; about how universities have been adopting the corporate
model of operation and outlook as they lock themselves into the
corporate embrace, at the sacrifice of the core values of the
academy; about the erosion of university culture as campuses have
become a closed world of secret deals, non-disclosure agreements,
prepublication reviews-the ensemble of practices that define the
intellectual property regime; and about the campus atmosphere of
silence, intimidation, and self-censorship that attends these
arrangements and signals the demise of free speech and academic

Participants noted that these fundamental changes in higher education
were the work of a relative handful of cynical and self-seeking, but
otherwise perhaps well-intentioned, administrators who in reality
constitute a distinct minority in academia, as compared with faculty,
students, and the taxpaying public who support institutions of higher
education. The participants resolved to try to reaffirm educational
ideals, and to strive to recapture the ideological, rhetorical, and
political initiative and moral high ground in the debates about
higher education-in order to reinvigorate a non-commercial conception
of higher education and reconsecrate the intrinsic rather than mere
utility value of universities. On behalf of those who truly embody
education, teachers and students, as well as the larger community
that education is meant to serve in a democratic society, the
participants determined to reclaim this precious and unique social
space as a realm of freedom, of open access, debate, inquiry, and
learning-a place, in short, where the habits and highest ideals of
democracy are a way of life. This, in essence, is the challenge
before us. It's a tall order, to be sure, but it usually is.