Los Angeles Times
Sunday, January 11, 1998  



Corporations that would provide technology in proposed partnership are seeking profit. Students and faculty could be the losers.   


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 Microsoft.

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 of execution."  

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 road.

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: david.klein@csun.edu   

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