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<nettime> Technology and the Commodification of Higher Education by David F. Noble

Monthly Review
March 2002

Technology and the Commodification of Higher Education
by David F. Noble

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 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.


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