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Private Lessons: Implications of the California Education Technology Initiative

A plan to replace CSU's aging communications infrastructure metamorphosed from a relatively unsexy policy matter into a sign of the times.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #37, March 1998

When it comes to technology, there is no place on earth perceived to be more cutting-edge than California. Maybe this is why a controversy involving the California State University (CSU) system received so much press coverage last fall. Partially because of the media's interest, a plan to replace the system's aging communications infrastructure metamorphosed from a relatively unsexy policy matter into a sign of the times. When CSU administrators decided that the only way to meet the technological needs of its 23 campuses was to team up with private corporations, faculty and students made haste to second-guess their decision. The plan itself -- known as the "California Education Technology Initiative" or CETI -- calls for four massive technology corporations -- Fujitsu, GTE, Hughes Electronics, and Microsoft -- to help pay for upgrades to the CSU system's computer networks in exchange for the right to advertise their products to the university community.

CSU administrators lauded the plan as an attempt to deal realistically with a political climate in which public education can no longer count on a massive influx of public money. Its detractors suggested that it would take the idea of "public-private" partnerships much too far, painting a bullseye on a CSU system that these corporations view as little more than a target market. But the most interesting aspect of the controversy is not the problems posed by the CETI plan itself so much as the broader questions it raises about the future of higher education. As we approach the end of the millennium, anxieties about the influence exercised by corporations that sponsor public education are rampant. And so are worries about the technology-driven developments that make corporate-financed upgrades seem necessary in the first place. The CETI controversy provides a perfect example of how deeply these concerns are intertwined. In deciding to seek private funding for overhauling their "baseline" technology, CSU adminstrators acknowledged how essential it has become for their vision of the university's future. They are looking forward to a university that is at least partially freed from the space constraints of a physical campus; a university where people do less and less of their communicating face to face; a university, in short, where "distance learning" is an integral part of the pedagogical mix.

Before we consider the implications of this plan more fully, we need to place initiatives like CETI in their historical context. The issue of public-private partnerships is not new. In the two decades since the Neo-Conservative "revolution" led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, our conception of public space has undergone a radical transformation. From publicly financed arenas, to publicly maintained highways, to publicly funded schools, spaces that were once almost exclusively public are now defined by the complex interplay of public money, private contracting, and corporate sponsorship. As the scope of government has been steadily reduced, private corporations with an incentive to be "cost-effective" have taken over many of the tasks it has been forced to abandon. In addition to this privatization of formerly public programs, the legacy of Neo-Conservative economic policies has had a pronounced effect on the way that public institutions plan for the future. It costs far more to implement new programs than to run existing ones. For this reason, taxpayers' unwillingness to contribute money to programs that do not seem to be in their self-interest -- as exemplified by California's famous Proposition 13 of the late 1970s -- has made it particularly difficult for publicly funded institutions to innovate. In fact, with the exception of plans to cut government down to size, there has been little support for using public money for anything new. In this context, the CETI plan represents only the latest example of the ways in which public institutions have coped with an era of privatization.

Bearing this in mind, it is also apparent that there is something new about initiatives like CETI. Although they exemplify an era of government downsizing, they also look forward to a time when existing presumptions about government will have become meaningless. In the initial waves of "reengineering" instigated by Neo-Conservatives, the principal goal was reform. Politicians urged that government be pared down to a manageable size. "Fat-trimming" was the order of the day. Two decades later, things are beginning to change. Although politicians still speak about making government more efficient, the downsizing model is becoming obsolete. It is no accident that CETI is described in one article from the San Francisco Chronicle (December 1, 1997) as "an exclusive provider of the campuses' 'baseline' technology" and in another article from The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 19, 1997) as an "upgrade that would bring the campuses a faster network 'backbone.'" CSU is not seeking to reduce fat, but to replace its skeleton. The reengineering of government that began with the intent to reduce public institutions to their core services has metamorphosed into a more fundamental form of restructuring. Instead of working from the outside in -- paring down, chipping away, cutting back -- this new mode of reengineering works from the inside out. It begins with the basics: the institutional infrastructure. In this respect, initiatives like CETI do mark a break with the early years of the Neo-Conservative era.

What does it mean when supposedly public institutions must rely on private funding, not only for so-called luxuries -- a new building here, a scholarship fund there -- but also for the necessities that those luxuries are intended to supplement? In part, it means that the powers-that-be no longer feel the need to compensate for the inequalities to which capitalism inevitably leads. This is not exactly news. Ever since defense-spending drove the Eastern Bloc to implode, the ideologues of the late twentieth-century market economy have trumpeted its undisputed mastery of the world scene. Without any meaningful threat to its dominance as a mode of production, capitalism does not need to be bolstered against potential usurpers. The welfare state has been rendered obsolete. And with its demise, the massive public funding it promoted has been consigned to the trash icon on the desktop of history.

To retell this story is to explain the underlying social transformations that are making public-private partnerships like CETI the norm. But there is another tale to tell which, although it is bound up with the first, helps to reveal the situation in a different light. It is the story of the cutting-edge technology for which California is justly famous. There was a time in the not-so-distant past of the so-called Fordist era -- a stage of capitalist development that peaked in the three decades between the Great Depression and the worldwide upheavals of the late 1960s -- when the conception of infrastructure was much more stable than it is today. Despite the many technological advances that occurred under Fordism, there was reasonable consensus about which social needs the state was in some sense responsible to provide. Even when education, transportation, utilities, and public works were not directly managed by the government, they were subject to its most intense scrutiny. Whatever else changed from year to year, infrastructure remained the province of government. So long as centralized planning could oversee these tasks with reasonable efficiency, there was no need to redesign the system from the ground up. Technological innovations were deployed to improve existing structures, not supplant them. In the three decades following World War II, the size and expense of computers more or less necessitated centralization. With the rise of the microcomputer in the late 1970s, however, this began to change. The fact that this period coincided so exactly with the rise of Neo-Conservatism is a "coincidence" a little too perfect to ignore.

But as important as microcomputers had become by the late 1980s, they had not fundamentally transformed the way that large public institutions operate. Universities and other organizations with the resources and rationale for centralized computer systems still relied on large machines for everyday operations from record-keeping to electronic mail. And, although these machines had improved over the years, they were not significantly different in form or function from their predecessors of the 1970s. Incremental change was the name of the game. It wasn't until the explosive growth of the internet in the middle of the 1990s that public institutions underwent a "paradigm shift" in their technological needs. All of a sudden, the slow, steady improvement of existing centralized computer systems could no longer keep pace with the demand for internet services. The problem was particularly acute in universities, which had historically provided free access to the internet for any member of the university community who asked for it. Although private schools also struggled to meet the demand for access, it proved particularly burdensome to public ones, which had to redirect existing funds to cover their burgeoning technological requirements.

It is more than slightly ironic that the impetus for these problems is itself a product of Fordist centralized planning. Like the free market, to which it has frequently been compared, the internet we know today is not the result of people doing what comes naturally. On the contrary, it would not have come into existence without the intervention of the state. Our sense of the internet as an anarchic space inimical to government steering belies its origins as a by-product of Cold War military spending. The internet was once ARAPNET, a government-funded communication network whose decentralized structure was itself the result of centralized planning. In fact, up until the middle of 1990s, the internet still fell into the category of public works, its basic functions sustained by state financing. Of course, these functions are now being handled by private corporations. The internet is another example of how public spaces -- virtual ones in this case -- have been privatized in accordance with Neo-Conservative thinking.

Plans like CETI present something of a paradox. Public institutions court private money in order to pay for new technology. But much of this technology is devoted to taking advantage of a once-public space that has recently been privatized. Wouldn't it have made more sense to keep both the institutions and the internet public? To the ideologists of the Neo-Conservative era, this question represents the return of the repressed. In order to even conceive of the big picture in this way, you need to believe that centralized planning can be effective. Neo-Conservatives do not share this faith, despite the eagerness with which they await the pearls of wisdom that drop from Federal Reserve Board Chairperson Alan Greenspan's lips. As far as they are concerned, private spending is always better than public spending. This is why we face a future in which public-private partnerships will gradually replace purely public institutions. And this is why people like the administrators at CSU consider initiatives like CETI to be so important.

Press coverage of the CETI controversy focused on the outrage that the plan provoked, ranging from professorial condemnations to student protests. Resistance to Microsoft's role in the project received special attention. Many of the people quoted in these articles concentrated on what was wrong with this particular deal: the fact that the inclusion of some companies might shut out others; the fact that faculty and student leaders were not adequately consulted on the deal; the fact that CETI will function as an autonomous contractor rather than a unit of the CSU system. But despite this emphasis on the specifics of the CETI initiative, some broader concerns were also addressed.

For example, the article from The Chronicle of Higher Education mentions one professor's reservations, not only about the way in which CETI could lead to the CSU system being held hostage by people who do not share its values, but also about the possibility that "the university could be pressured by the companies to offer more distance-education courses over the internet in place of traditional classroom instruction." This concern reflects the realization that, where public-private partnerships have had time to establish themselves, it is usually the private side that determines their long-term planning. In this not-so-optimistic appraisal of the CETI plan, CSU administrators would end up borrowing their corporate partners' glasses in order to see a vision of the system's future.

As this article points out, CSU administrators have taken pains to insist that they have no intention of letting any of their corporate partners get behind the system's steering wheel. As their official statement about the deal notes, "nothing in the proposed final partnership agreement will shift campus authority for academic policies and programs to the partnership." But this is where the rapid expansion of distance-learning programs complicates the picture. Even if CSU were to retain a firm hold on its traditional, campus-based programs, it is hard to believe that CETI would play no role in helping to determine its policies on distance-learning. Because decisions about distance-learning programs inevitably depend on technological factors, it is impossible to make a clear distinction between matters that are purely academic and those that are purely technical. In distance-learning we confront the same problem of boundary dissolution that characterizes the public-private partnerships of the Neo-Conservative era. Thus, it is surely no accident that such partnerships are playing a prominent role in the development of distance-learning programs, not only in California, but around the world.

At one point in the article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, a spokesperson for GTE, one of CETI's corporate partners, explains to wary students and faculty that "there are just some tremendous benefits" to the plan "if you can look past your fears and some of your concerns about turf." But he does nothing to allay these concerns when he notes that the plan, although unprecedented within higher education, is "actually more what we do for some of our high-end business partners." For all of their efforts to restructure themselves according to a business model, universities are not supposed to be businesses in a conventional sense. Their primary purpose is not to make profits, but to educate. At least, that's what universities would like us to believe. After all, if universities were merely for-profit corporations, they would lose their tax-exempt status.

Perhaps that's where we're headed next, a world in which the line between school and work has finally been erased. If nothing else, it would rid us of the pretense that universities are meant to be a place apart. And, by extension, it would make us radically rethink our understanding of what it means to be "educated." There is no denying that the institutional legitimacy conferred by a university degree greatly improves a person's chances of being a "have" instead of a "have-not," regardless of whether she or he has learned anything useful in the process. Why shouldn't someone who has been forced to learn "on the job" have the same opportunities for advancement as someone who has had the luxury of being productively unemployed? These are the sort of conclusions that the Neo-Conservative era has trained us to consider. And these are the sort of conclusions which public-private partnerships like CETI may lead us to accept.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, the article on CETI is paired with an ad -- once again, this is surely not an accident -- for Real Education, one of the start-up firms that is seeking to make a name for itself in the distance-learning market. The ad informs university administrators that "online education is a reality and a necessity," in order to impress upon them "the economic benefits of outsourcing the development, maintenance, and delivery" of a "web-based online university." Unlike CETI, Real Education is a strictly private venture. But its underlying function is similar: to permit institutions to "outsource" for their infrastructure. The ironies of paying an independent contractor to provide a "backbone" are too rich to explore here. It is sufficient to remind ourselves that the increasing spinelessness of public institutions is one of the many "economic benefits" of our Neo-Conservative era. So is the logic that makes this advertisement seem reasonable: "Concentrate on the business of education and let us worry about end user support, delivery systems, and technical problems." In the student movements of the 1960s, protesters decried the university's status as a "knowledge factory." As we approach the millennium, their counterparts confront a world in which large parts of the factory are being run, not by the impassive bureaucrats of the Fordist heyday, but by profit-seeking subcontractors incapable of imagining a world in which business is not business as usual.

Charlie Bertsch is a Ph.D. Candidate in the English Department at UC-Berkeley, where he is completing a dissertation entitled Subverting the System: Models of Resistance in Post-WWII American Culture. He can be reached by e-mail at the following internet address:

Copyright © 1998 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.