U must catch up to technology first

As Mark Yudof has settled into the president’s office, he has initiated new plans for the future of the University. But the transfer of power from Hasselmo to Yudof has quietly witnessed the disappearance of another grand University growth strategy. The University 2000 project has been swept under the carpet, now covertly pursuing its ends, free from the hoopla that dominated University press releases during the years prior to President Yudof’s inauguration.
Not that Yudof’s goals are all that different from those embodied by U2000. Fundamentally, both have the same task — preparing the University to compete in the next millennium. We are going to be an educational powerhouse, home to the newest technologies designed to augment learning and turn out students ready to succeed in the digital marketplace.
Unfortunately, the University should be reaching for the 1990s, attempting to catch up with the times before leapfrogging ahead.
Is University technology up to snuff for the digital era? The most recent attempt to consolidate our computing resources arrived this weekend courtesy of the Office of Information Technology. Apparently, part of preparing drones for the marketplace includes encouraging us to use dumbed-down, obscenely user-friendly, mass-market software. As of last weekend, anyone wanting to access e-mail through a traditional Unix shell account began paying $10 for three months of the privilege. This tiny bite out of our pocketbooks is just the most recent of the inane grabs for cash by the OIT.
Last year, Networking and Telecommunications Services started charging hard core computer users for connecting to the Internet with their home modems. After 30 hours of access, students and staff are charged $4 for additional 30-hour blocks. The official story was that the policy would discourage people from tying up the modems for long periods of time, causing busy signals to run rampant. I for one never had problems with busy signals. But now I pay my four or eight dollars every month just so I can stay in touch with my family and conduct research for my degree.
Plus, there is a per page cost to print in campus computer labs. There’s also the $6 we are forced to pay for “ppp.scp,” the proprietary dial-up script file and a bundle of freely available software, both of which could be provided online. All of which comes on top of our quarterly computer fees which is $45 to $50 for the average student, but up to $100 for some colleges. By the time it all adds up, a lot of us who only need Internet access from the University would find it more cost effective to find a local Internet service provider, if only we could refuse the fee.
Maybe, though, this is just the way all big schools run things. Hardly.
Of the 11 schools in the Big Ten conference, seven provide unlimited dial-up access to students; another offering up to a very reasonable 100 free hours per month. Half of Big Ten schools offer free Unix shell accounts, and six offer free laser printing to students. Obviously, students at these schools pay for the benefits through tuition and fees, but the crucial difference is that such fees are evenly distributed across the entire student body.
The OIC and NTS bonus charges are, in effect, penalties on students who make more extensive use of the resources available. Never mind that these same people are normally the ones who do not even use the on-campus labs which their fees are subsidizing or even that the on-campus facilities are pathetically inadequate, regularly involving a half hour wait in line to gain entrance.The system just isn’t fair. Consider another campus resource to which we all contribute, the Recreation Center. Why are special fees not levied against individuals who make use of it more than the average student, let alone the average computer geek? (Don’t be offended. I’m a computer geek too, and proud of it.) It seems to be acceptable for the computer geeks to pay extra for their activities, but not for the equally small minority of health nuts to cover any excess costs of their own facility.
One might hope that by 1999, when the University might require all students to own their own computers, the technology fee will be reduced. Certainly if everyone has his or her own computer, the demand for on-campus computing resources will be diminished. Realistically, though, I don’t foresee a change in the fees. Sure the demand will be reduced, but since when does the University ever decide to give back money?
All of this is hardly surprising given the University’s track record in preparing us for the next century. Remember the U Card? It was supposed to make our lives easier, allowing us to do almost anything on campus, maybe even fly from the East Bank to the West Bank. One of the super powers of the card was the ability to make purchases in the campus bookstores. Have you tried? Since early fall quarter, the bookstores have refused to accept the U Card. Another pitiful technological failure.
But at least the bookstores accept credit cards, which is more than we can say for the University itself. When you go to the Bursar’s office each quarter to pay your tuition and fees, they will not accept credit cards. It baffles me that an institution that is supposed to be at the height of technological innovation has adamantly refused to adapt to the currency preference of choice in the latter quarter of the 20th century. They may argue that our money-strapped University cannot afford to pay a percentage to credit card companies, but I’d love to see the results of an impartial study considering default risk premiums on student payments and the certain reduction in staff that would result from a conversion.
The sad thing is that there doesn’t seem to be much that we, as students, can do about any of this. The University is hanging onto past technological glory, living in the time when the Gopher browser was hot. Well, the Web is the big kid on the block these days, and Gopher has gone the way of the dinosaurs. What has University computing done for us lately, except look for ever more innovative ways to empty our wallets?
While we may not be able to change things outright, we may be able to make the University administration so miserable, they will have to concede. Look for small acts of sabotage — ways to annoy them. Start using the Recreation Center to overload levels, scaring the fitness freaks with your out-of-shape geek body. Distribute the login script to new students next fall. Clog the computer labs, surfing the Web when you are done with your paper. And as for the Bursar’s office, start paying cash instead of writing a check. I’m already putting together my bag of shiny nickels, dimes and quarters for spring. When the Minnesota mosquitoes swarm, even a titan like the University will have to take notice, and our school, the place that will appear on our resumes for the rest of our lives, may finally get with the times.
Chris Trejbal’s column appears every Tuesday. He welcomes comments by e-mail to [email protected]