March 5, 2010

From Gerald R. Lucas

Talk of massive state budgets cuts for higher education has preoccupied everyone on campus for the last week. Ever since the state legislature decided that it might be a good idea to make up a budget shortfall of $1.1 billion by crippling the university system’s funding by $600 billion, the only business being done centers around money, or a projected lack thereof. The bottom line, after all, is the concern of business.

Well, the administrators acted quickly. Our chair called an emergency meeting of the faculty with the directive to ask us what we think. I do appreciate the gesture. However, while I, like my colleagues, am an expert in my field, that field is not economics, marketing, nor management. Perhaps this is why they asked.

Go Linux!

I couldn’t make the meeting, and I didn’t talk with anyone who did. However, I do have a suggestion that I think has the potential to save the university system quite a bit of money. It might sound like a radical solution, but I think it would also solve many of the technology issues our campus seems to be struggling with.

Let’s get rid of all unnecessary proprietary software, including most Microsoft licenses.

I can’t find any hard numbers on what the university system pays for licenses each year (I wonder why? A friend who’s in-the-know said I’d be “shocked”), but it has to be pretty sizable. Why do we need to pay that? Why do we need Windows and Office? Why do we need proprietary email servers? Why do we need Bing? Seriously. Why?

Yes, I do see the need for some proprietary software. I have been a long-time Mac user, but I recently decided to save some money and go Linux. I’m typing on my open-source laptop right now. It is solid, fast, and does everything I need it to for my daily computing needs. I go to my ailing Mac for Aperture, and I plan on teaching myself Final Cut Pro one of these days. Therefore, I do not think that all proprietary software is unnecessary. That which is needed specifically for various curricula should stay. Yet, I find it hard to believe that all of the open-use computers in, say, the Academic Resource Center, need to have proprietary software running on them.

Replace our proprietary CMS with Moodle. Replace Windows with with Ubuntu. Replace Office with OpenOffice. If we did this to all open-use computers throughout the 35 universities and colleges in the USG, I’m sure we would save a considerable chunk of change.

We could take this a step further by eliminating all of the Exchange (!) servers, too, and moving to Google apps – for free! Our OIT department obviously can’t handle the challenges of running a mail server that offers its users true access and a modern web interface (ours is still Exchange 2003), so let Google do it. I would love to have a Gmail front-end for my campus mail. I would love to use Google’s calendaring department-wide. I would love to see students use Google Docs. This could be one of many choices.

Yet, they will never even consider this. I wrote to our Director of OIT about this, but I have yet to hear back. Even if it got to a discussion, they’d talk about security concerns, about “sensitive student data,” about losing connectivity, about student learning curves. You know, all the stuff right out of the Microsoft FUD manual.

I have always argued that students are better served by learning a general computer literacy, rather than a specific one. When all students get is Microsoft to use, it becomes transparent. They learn to live with the poor solutions and the frustrations, and come to depend on them. They no longer look at the system, but see through it to what they think is important: their actual work. However, I’m seeing McLuhan’s insight more each year: “medium is the message.” When technologies become such a part of everyday life, we no longer look at them in a critical way. Therefore, they begin to control how it is we work and play in both subtle and profound ways.

One of my literature students brought up Linux in class yesterday: “What is it?” To me, this seems an absurd question. Linux has been around almost 20 years, and no one in that class had even heard of it. That’s what we need to teach students in higher education: that they have choices and they should investigate them fully. But instead we feed the beast and teach students to be consumers of all things Microsoft. Not only is this expensive for the bottom line, but it’s also expensive ethically and culturally.

Fix the budget: eliminate (most) proprietary software.