Los Angeles Times
Sunday, January 11, 1998
PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION
CSU PLANNING AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE
Corporations that would provide technology in proposed partnership are
seeking profit. Students and faculty could be the losers.
By DAVID KLEIN
Appropriate use of computers and the Internet is one of the major
issues facing schools and universities across the nation, and Cal State
Northridge is no exception. CSUN is on the verge of joining the other
22 campuses of the California State University system to begin an
unprecedented partnership with technology giants Microsoft, GTE,
Fujitsu and Hughes Electronics.
Pending the outcome of legislative hearings, the four corporations are
planning to sign a 10-year contract with CSU administrators to create a
for-profit, joint-venture company, called the California Educational
Technology Initiative, or CETI (although the name may change). As part
of the deal, CETI would wire CSUN and the other CSU campuses with
state-of-the-art telephone and computer networks. CETI's mandate would
be so broad that the corporation's gross expenditures over 10
years--including the cost of building the infrastructure and supplying
and operating the equipment connected to it--could reach $5.3 billion.
CETI would supply advanced technology, which some predict the
Legislature would be unwilling or unable to provide.
But faculty, students and organized citizens have criticized the plan
as vague and a possible threat to competition and academic
independence, and for passing on hidden costs to students. Last month,
CSUN's faculty senate joined those of San Diego State, San Francisco
State, San Jose State and many other CSU campuses, along with the
statewide Academic Senate, in asking for a delay of the merger and
expressing concerns about its negative impact on education. At least
three campus faculty senates sent letters to state Atty. Gen. Dan
Lungren asking him "to seek an injunction to prevent the [CSU]
chancellor from signing the CETI agreement until there is a business
plan from the CSU perspective and allowing six months for faculty to
study the business plan and respond." The California State Student
Assn. passed a resolution expressing its opposition to CETI and any
"privatization of the California State University as a whole." The
computer-savvy citizens group NetAction, which is also opposed to CETI,
maintains a World Wide Web site with sharp criticisms and a focus on
Responding to public pressure against the commercialization of the
campuses it oversees, the CSU administration reluctantly announced
Tuesday that no deal would be signed before March, postponing the
rushed plans for the creation of CETI by at least a month. Student and
faculty critics who attended legislative hearings on CETI that same day
were relieved by the delay, and Martin Haeberli, the education director
of Netscape Communications, Microsoft's competitor, called it a "stay
Why all this resistance to state-of-the-art technology? Corporations
are not charitable organizations. CETI would have to make a profit from
its huge investment in the CSU infrastructure. One way to do this is by
marketing products such as Internet access, paging and other
communications services to students, faculty and the surrounding
communities. CETI would lock campuses into standardized, proprietary
technology, placing graduates at a disadvantage for finding employment
with non-CETI companies. Professors would be rewarded for marketing
products to their students. CSUN's mission would shift a few degrees
away from educating students and a few degrees toward fleecing them.
But that's only the beginning. There would be a strong incentive to
transform CSUN and other CSU campuses into "virtual universities,"
pressuring students to buy computers from CETI and use them to take
classes over the Internet from their homes. Telephone access would be
provided by GTE, software by Microsoft, satellite links by Hughes and
hardware by Fujitsu.
CETI would commercialize the entire CSU system, and it would cost the
students, faculty and local communities in the long run. Like all
private companies, CETI would be run in secret. Unlike other
corporations, it would have the benefit of a captive market of
students, and its operations would be partially funded by the
taxpayers. It would also divert its excess capacity to supply Internet
access and phone services to local customers outside the CSU, using its
university association to edge out competitors.
Technology is a useful tool, but it is not an end in itself. I use
computers in my research and occasionally in my teaching. The Internet
is valuable for some purposes, but there are serious limitations.
Surfing the Internet has about the same educational value as channel
surfing on television.
In spite of all the hype about the need for more computers in
education, there is no evidence that students surrounded by technology
do any better than students who are not. "Technological training for
the 21st century" has become a euphemism for mouse clicking and
familiarity with job-specific software. It would be more prudent for
CSUN and the other campuses to wait for prices to drop and see what
really works in education instead of jumping on the "technology
bandwagon." If Internet technology really is the panacea to education's
problems, there will be plenty of other, better opportunities down the
During meetings at CSUN with faculty, students and administrators to
discuss the CETI corporate partnership, senior administrators made dire
warnings that requests for delays and expressions of doubt might scare
off the corporations and spoil this top-down deal.
If that's all it takes to scare them off, there should be no deal. Any
major changes to our state universities should be open to public
scrutiny, and if the light of day makes the corporations jittery enough
to consider bailing, they are not the kinds of business partners CSUN
and the other CSU campuses need.
Corporations already control much of our lives. Do we want to hand over
public education as well?
David Klein is a Mathematical Physicist and Professor of
Mathematics at Cal State Northridge. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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