During the recent European Super League furore there was much talk of football club owners being ‘custodians’ of the game (see, for example Everton’s statement). This might be a romantic, quaint notion in a world of aggressive capitalism, but it captures something about being in charge of institutions that have been around for a long time, will likely persist beyond the current owners, and contribute to something larger in society.
Universities and all HEIs occupy a similar role in society in many respects (although without the same pay as footballers it should be noted). The Principals and Vice Chancellors of these institutions are similarly in a custodian role – not only to their own institution but to the preservation and development of higher education in general. This comes with a commitment to protect and uphold academic values I think.
We can have a long, probably endless, debate about what such values are, and how they reflect broader society. But a commonly agreed one amongst them would be the freedom of legitimate academic criticism. That’s kind of the point of being an academic – to either provide evidence to reinforce existing theories or find ways of critiquing work that make us see it anew. Without this trait we’d all be teaching Phlogiston 101.
Universities often take ethical stances, although one might argue they need to be more robust against the interference of the UK Government. But to concentrate on a smaller, more ed tech focused example – many of you will have followed the story of Ian Linkletter, who is being sued by proctoring software company Proctorio. Ian’s ‘crime’ as I understand it, was to share the links to unlisted YouTube videos from the company (I’m no legal expert, this is not a legal but ethical case I’m making). It seems more likely in my view, that this is not really about what he did but rather about silencing any criticism. If you fear you will face a lawsuit from a company with deep pockets, even if you eventually win, the stress and cost is likely to be damaging. Better not to say anything.
Ian has a Go-FundMe page to help cover the costs of his legal expenses. It is mostly individuals who have donated, and some of the good ed tech companies like Hypothesis and Reclaim Hosting. This brings me back to the custodian argument. Like the football owners, uni presidents have a duty to protect the values in our domain that are essential to its identity. I’d like to see unis donating to Ian’s fund, but there may be legal restraints on that. They should at least be boycotting Proctorio. This is not necessarily because they are a proctoring company – the ethics of that are a different argument, and they can make judgements on that. Rather it is about the intent to undermine a fundamental academic practice. Just as the Blackboard patent case seemed to go against the very concept of innovating in teaching, so Proctorio’s lawsuit feels like an attack on practice every academic engages in – criticising shit. It’s Ian Linkletter and Proctorio today – it’ll be you and a large conglomerate tomorrow.
ALT are developing an ethical framework, which will be useful in highlighting the considerations of deploying any ed tech. It probably focuses more on the implementation of a specific technology than the practices of the company, and this is an element I think senior management in HEIs need to consider in their custodian role. Universities ethically source the coffee in their cafes, they should also ethically source the technology they use in their institutions.