Thursday, October 07, 2004

Software, Prescriptions, and Higher Ed

One of the joys of budgeting for an academic division is trying to accommodate the software requests from the various departments within the same operating budgets as the several years before. Few of the requests I get are frivolous – it’s not shocking that the photography program wants Photoshop, or that journalism wants Quark, or that music wants ProTools – it’s just that they’re hellaciously expensive, and they don’t save us anything.

In private industry, technology pays for itself or better (if you’re using it right) by increasing productivity (reducing unit labor costs). If computers reduce the need for secretaries, then $400 for the Microsoft Office package is a good deal. A company can buy the software it thinks will help, and ignore the rest.

In education, though, software is pure cost. Updating Photoshop doesn’t save me any money. All it does is keep us current with potential employers of our graduates, who now want students who are fluent in both film and digital (meaning that I get to keep paying for the infrastructure for both). Adobe can charge us pretty much whatever it wants, and I just have to find the money to pay them. Meanwhile, my operating budget remains flat (since our govt. support remains flat), so every new purchase or increase means something else gets cut (usually, replacing f-t faculty with adjuncts.)

It’s incredibly frustrating. Copyright law, which the software companies use as a cudgel, was never intended to hamper education. There’s a doctrine in copyright law called fair use, which allows for limited non-profit educational and scholarly use of copyrighted material without a fee. (The classic example is quoting a sentence or two from a book in a book review. You can do that without asking or paying.) The idea was to foster a healthy exchange of ideas, which can only happen when ideas are allowed to escape the confines of intellectual property. Fair use has limits – as soon as you cross into for-profit territory, the whole doctrine collapses – but that’s okay. The idea is to balance the need to reward creators for their work with the need for an educated public.

For reasons that escape me, there’s no fair use doctrine for software. Non-profits don’t get any special treatment, except at the discretion of individual vendors. What that means is that I can’t afford to keep up with the technology as much as I’d like, and to the extent that I try, it comes at the expense of other things (like, say, faculty).

Politicians love to make hay by attacking tuition increases, but what else are we supposed to do? The public sector has utterly failed to even try to maintain its historic levels of support, and our non-optional costs keep going up. I think it’s similar to the situation in the medical field with prescription drugs. I can’t choose to ignore the internet revolution without dire consequences for my programs, any more than a psychologist can afford to pretend that anti-depressants never happened. Since we allow drug companies to charge whatever they want for purchases that – let’s face it – aren’t optional in any meaningful way, they do. That drives health insurance costs up (and gives us yet another incentive to go all-adjunct, all the time). If I’m running a photography program, I can’t pretend that the digital revolution didn’t happen. (Kodak tried, and it’s bleeding badly.) I just have to eat the costs, continually raiding other parts of my (overall static) budget to pay for it. We pass on a limited portion of the increase as tuition, to the scornful howls of all and sundry, and we split the rest between a gradual erosion of purchasing and a gradual erosion of faculty. The only winners are the software companies, who have us over a barrel, and know it.

Why there’s no non-profit fair use doctrine for software is utterly beyond me. There’s an unimpeachable argument for it – by making sure the next generation is technically savvy, we’re creating future customers – but it just hasn’t happened. (The internet wouldn’t even exist if it hadn’t been nurtured in the non-profit defense and higher education sectors!) Meanwhile, my division’s software requests exceed my annual budget line for software by a factor of ten, and some departments’ requests aren’t even in yet.

Back in the day, our budgets had to cover classrooms and faculty. Now, they also have to cover computers, software, tech support, etc., but our marginal increases over the years have simply not kept up. (In truth, just about the entire tuition increase each year gets swallowed up by health insurance. Our operating budgets have been flat or declining for years.) The software part, at least, should be an easy fix, if we could just get the law right. Until then, we’ll just keep hollowing ourselves out.