Changing the Report, After the Vote

U.S. higher ed panel alters language about open source software after commissioner from Microsoft balks.
September 1, 2006

Except for David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, every member of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education found enough to endorse in the draft the panel produced last month to support it over all. All of them, certainly, also found some aspects of the report objectionable, yet swallowed those objections and agreed, at a public meeting August 10, to sign the report. The panel's members agreed at the time that the report would undergo only minor copy editing and "wordsmithing" between then and when it was formally presented to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings later this month.

That agreement was nearly imperiled last weekend, though. Gerri Elliott, corporate vice president at Microsoft's Worldwide Public Sector division, sent an e-mail message to fellow commissioners Friday evening saying that she "vigorously" objected to a paragraph in which the panel embraced and encouraged the development of open source software and open content projects in higher education. The paragraph read like this:

The commission encourages the creation of incentives to promote the development of open-source and open-content projects at universities and colleges across the United States, enabling the open sharing of educational materials from a variety of institutions, disciplines, and educational perspectives. Such a portal could stimulate innovation, and serve as the leading resource for teaching and learning. New initiatives such as OpenCourseWare, the Open Learning Initiative, the Sakai Project, and the Google Book project hold out the potential of providing universal access both to general knowledge and to higher education.

While she agreed with the underlying idea that technological innovation aimed at sharing educational materials and furthering collaborative learning is essential, Elliott said, she took issue with the commission's decision to weigh in on "the manner in which the underlying software is developed."

"It is certainly a surprise entry and was absolutely never discussed in any of the meetings I attended," Elliott wrote, adding that she would "never sign" a report that contained the paragraph as written. She proposed alternative language from which the word "open" was conspicuously absent.

A few hours later, just after midnight on Saturday, Charles Miller, the panel's chairman, wrote in an e-mail that he believed Elliott's proposed changes were "an improvement and consistent with the work of the commission." He said the panel would make the changes "if there are no objections."

But the objections came quickly, and in varying degrees of intensity. Charles M. Vest, president emeritus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that he was "generally comfortable" with Elliott's suggestion but that he thought it essential that "open content" must stay. ("Open source," he agreed, does not necessarily translate into "access to knowledge," but "we must absolutely consider both commercial software platforms and open-source development as parts of the mix.") MIT has been a pioneer among colleges in making its course materials freely available online.

Richard Stephens, senior vice president for human resources and administration at Boeing, said he agreed with Elliott's ideas, but still questioned whether it was appropriate to substantively change the draft the commissioners agreed to in August. "There are a number of commissioners that would like something changed, but felt that the report, while not perfect, reflected the findings and recommendations necessary to improve this nation's higher education system," Stephens said. "Unless we all agree, it would be difficult to accept this change and not the changes others would like to see."

As is his wont, Richard Vedder, an outspoken economics professor at Ohio University, weighed in with all of his typing fingers blazing mid-day Saturday. Not only was the original version appropriate, Vedder said (open content "is a promising new trend in higher education that needs our explicit support," he wrote), but more importantly, "I think it is outrageous to try to change the text of a document weeks after members have been asked to read it, and long after we have met and voted to sign it." Vedder said he thought it might even be illegal to "change a report that has been voted on in a public meeting and to which people have already signed."
Then he added: "I must say, and I am sorry if I offend Gerri, that many very important persons on this commission found the time to read the report when asked by the chair. Their corporate responsibilities, while great, were not so great that they neglected their responsibilities to the commission.... Perhaps Microsoft considered this a low priority part of Gerri's work -- if so she should not have accepted this assignment, or, if she did, she should accept the consequences of her failure to perform her duties as all other members of the commission have."

Not surprisingly, Elliott was not pleased. She called the original wording of the document "parochial" and a "commercial endorsement of specific products." (In an interview Thursday, Elliott noted that she had never, during the panel's year of deliberations, "expressed endorsement of one platform over another -- that would have been inappropriate. I was not on the commission representing my company, I was there to represent the workforce.")

And to Vedder's comments on her tardy response to the commission's report -- she was traveling during the August 10 meeting, and did not join via teleconference as did several other panel members, including Robert Zemsky from Thailand -- Elliott said in her e-mail reply that she was "completely offended by this personal attack." "This has nothing to do with my 'corporate responsibilities,' and [Miller] was well aware of my availability and access in August." (In Thursday's interview, she added that she had given Miller her proxy at the August 10 meeting based on her sense of the report at the "macro" level, but had not had a chance to review the final document until recently.)

Ever the conciliator, James J. Duderstadt sought a compromise. While acknowledging that "we cannot reopen the wordsmithing of the final draft of the report to each of the concerns many of us had with specific details, he proposed language that both broadened the original paragraph to address Elliott's concerns yet sustained references both to open content initiatives and to open source software. His proposal:

The commission encourages the creation of incentives to promote the development of information-technology-based collaborative tools and capabilities at universities and colleges across the United States, enabling access, interaction, and sharing of educational materials from a variety of institutions, disciplines, and educational perspectives. Both commercial development and new collaborative paradigms such as open source, open content, and open learning will be important in building the next generation learning environments for the knowledge economy.

Saturday night, Miller endorsed Duderstadt's compromise, which he said was "an improvement in the language, and because it meets the intent of the original language, it should meet both the legal standard and the form of the motion we approved. We take that very seriously and again, that's a matter of judgment, but I think it would meet a test of reasonableness and we would clearly and openly point out the change to the public."

That didn't quite go far enough for Elliott, though. She thanked Duderdstadt for his suggestion but objected to his proposed inclusion of "open source" ("it's a method of coding software, and one of several available, period") and "open content" (a "term which can mean different things and enter us into some copyright debate"). She suggested language that struck those phrases.

Monday morning, Miller said the commission would go with Duderstadt's compromise language, which he called "an improvement in the draft" that "does not require and will not be put to a vote."

Later that morning, Elliott gave in, writing: "I support Jim's paragraph as well."


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