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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Georgia State, Copyright and the Future of Higher Education
June 10, 2011 - 7:15am

I have been focused, some might say obsessed, with concern about the future of higher education, if not since I devoted my life's work to its enterprise some thirty years ago, increasingly as I have observed challenges escalate to threats emerge to not-for-profit higher education in the last few years. Copyright conundrums are both symptom and disease. With its policy tentacles extending from the free market to speech, copyright and its inimical balance of innovation and incentive sits squarely in the center of why, for and how higher education operates at is most dynamic levels. Even where the Venn diagrams of their respective scopes separate, where copyright goes, so goes not-for-profit higher education. And visa versa, I would argue.

Why? Because -- and I believe this is important -- both are fundamentally predicated on the purpose of serving the public good. Neither are self-interested, as would be a pure, for-profit corporate model; both are designed to act in the interests of the society. To be sure, copyright and higher education have capacities that feed for-profit models. They are not in the least opposed to those models or their functionality in the political economy. But their purpose is distinguishable. Hence, even when they perform differently within the society, one as a law, the other as, in the main, not-for-profit entities, they meet at the level of service to society not individual gain.

It is for this reason that the Georgia State University case now playing out in federal court is of such significance for the academic community. The Chronicle of Higher Education's piece, "What's at Stake in the Georgia State Copyright Case," sets out all of the issues expertly; I could not add another work to that corpus. <> What I would like to offer in this blog entry is a clarion call to the highest level of academic leadership in our country to think very deeply about this matter, get on the right side of history for the sake of our own institutions and begin to take some bold, concrete actions going forward.

In making the following high level recommendations I do not pretend originality in the least. Rather, I speak now in the tradition of a popularizer. Higher education MUST begin to systematically and comprehensively analyze and address the areas of unhealthy dependence on for-profit entities and turn instead to the task of investing, building and creating self-sustaining not-for-profit, open access models consistent with its values and missions.

Scholarly publishing stands on top of a list that might include everything from administrative systems (see Kuali) to learning management systems (see Sakai) to consortia data centers. Because research and teaching are the central activities of our enterprise, scholarly publishing should be the priority (although notably, it is not a zero sum game but one of complementarity consistent with internal policy to pursue other like areas). With the technology that exists to restructure distribution models, and the intelligence -- from raw research to business operations -- there is no reason why higher education cannot recreate a more self-sustaining, peer review structure that upholds its high standards at the same time that it incorporates new media into portfolios for promotion and tenure. So many other, far more thoughtful minds have explored this topic, I am going to stop here and urge senior leadership in our colleges and universities to seek more information from experts in their institutional library or national associations familiar with these issues.

I did not go to law school to practice law. As I have reported previously, I went to law school for the expedient purpose of understanding how both the process and substance of law interact with higher education. For a short time while my children were young and husband working full time, I did practice mainly in the civil indigent bar in Tompkins County. Amid the custody and neglect cases that I took primarily, I observed a much neglected area of law for that population: estate planning. That observation often elicits howls for its apparent oxymoron: how could people who have nothing pass anything along? But it was for the very notion that having so little that many families lost so much not only in money, but in dignity, attempting to work out even meager estates in the absence of last wills and testaments. Had a grant fallen from the sky, I had an idea to create a small foundation that I would call: "Where there is a will, there is a way." You get my double meaning.

Higher education is in a very different kind of situation. It is not indigent. While many colleges and universities struggle, there is tremendous wealth in our institutions. In fact, it is because of that wealth that we have become a target for every possible vendor to make their way into our hallowed halls. We simply cannot rest on the laurels of our past or even existing wealth. We have in many cases become a cipher for middle class wealth and struggling younger people who seek to improve their lives in the time honored way of getting an education as a part of upward mobility. But we may be lacking something to get ourselves on better footing. Is it true insight about the challenges qua threats that batter our borders? Is the interest in efficiencies from which we might borrow instruction from the for-profit world lending confusion to the critical distinctions between us? Is some combination of these and other blinders muting our ability to see beyond traditional structures to those that genuinely support our missions? If so, we better snap out of it. The voracious greed, especially in this time of scampering for every dollar, built into a free market society looks hungrily at our deep pockets. We need senior leadership in our institutions, guided by national associations, to pull that campus radical of the 1960's our of the suits and high heels we now don and get serious about a direction of change that preserves us. That direction is true stewardship of the resources of the society and the purpose which we serve rather than effectively giving the store away.

For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, where there is a will, there is a way.


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