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How Your Ideas Lead to Real Change

TACT was crucial to the modern intellectual property (IP) policy of American universities. It went like this. Open University began broadcasting courses in the UK and USA, causing the Texas Legislature in 1987 to mandate a study that led to a statewide telecommunication network. The state was playing defense against potential foreign competitors, but also offense as Texas created valuable IP (for example, an MD at a university hospital advising an EMS team in remote west Texas, saving the lives of patients in critical condition). Soon academic administrators thought about transmitting courses to isolated Texans, but not before University of Phoenix and Western Governors University were threatening to do so. Only the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board kept them out, briefly.

Distance education (DE) loomed ominously, so I composed a questionnaire and sent it to all the Texas campuses. The TACT chapter presidents reported much concern on their campuses and three campuses were starting to offer a course on television. By the next TACT meeting, many more members reported that DE was starting. Everyone knew that one instructor could offer many courses to many campuses, and one set of tapes could be the end of live faculty teaching that course. Many DE issues came to mind, and I started to study them and wrote articles for the TACT Bulletin—nobody else had hopped on this potential scourge like TACT. Our articles got out, and I started getting phone calls from around Texas and other states. Others were mute until fall 1991 when The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 16) reported that “7,000 students protest Michigan State U. decision to offer required history course using television.” That year U.T. Tyler had a brain-storming session and conducted group exercises to stimulate interest and work out problems that were plaguing video courses. The faculty were concerned about transmission delays and such. But they were awe struck to hear about new cameras that could photograph documents. To my horror, nobody mentioned larger issues—there was no real concern.

I heard about two professors out West who had died, but their tapes were still being shown on TV, much to the dismay of their widows. Another professor had moved to another university, but his tapes were still teaching at his previous location. In 1995, The Chronicle of Higher Education had a cartoon by Eli Stein showing a professor coming home with all his books and papers, saying to his wife, “I’ve been replaced by video tapes of me teaching.” This was a real threat, and I came to see that a purpose of DE was substantially getting courses from faculty. I had conducted a few studies of disabilities, and I knew that universities presented few obstacles to the disabled. Also, branch campuses were spreading all over Texas. It was clear to me that DE was a struggle for market share and reducing the cost per student.

My plan of action was to become a senior fellow at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board where I could study DE during the summer. Then I got elected to be the president of the faculty senate at UT Tyler, thereby becoming a member of the Faculty Advisory Council (FAC) of the UT System. The idea was to corral DE and protect faculty IP. I slowly came to understand that IP was a crucial part of the DE issue and that university ownership of faculty IP was a constant threat to our independence. If universities could maintain faculty as “workers for hire,” then we would have no recourse.

My work on the FAC was successful, and I moved on to the Office of General Council (the lawyers) of the UT System in order to enlist their support. This worked with my new colleague, Georgia Harper. The essence of new IP is simple: the creator is the owner. No longer does the university own our work because it contributed a worksite and electricity. Our courses are our creations, and we are independent contractors producing unique research and courses. As progress was rolling here in Texas, I took the issues of DE and IP to the national level with the American Association of University Professors. They were delighted and I held sessions at their next two national meetings. The new IP policy was endorsed by the UT Regents, and the AAUP drafted the policy into their formal documents (The Red Book). Nearly immediately, I began hearing of universities adopting our DE and IP policies. I kept up with the spread of the new IP policy, as universities heard the idea from their neighboring universities and the notion expanding out and back as slow universities eventually got on board. The completion took several years and there might be a hold-out somewhere still.

From our TACT meetings and articles to nationwide policy. We can do path-breaking work again. TACT can provide a starting point where incipient ideas can be mentioned, tested, and gain supporters. You can effect a fine change on universities throughout the state or country. Maybe coming up with policies that protect the innocent in Title IX cases; protect women’s sports from trans infringement; protect minority viewpoints on campus, countless possibilities and needs.


This is substantially extracted from a larger writing used for The AAUP’s Summer Institute in Marquette, Michigan, 1999.

W. Allen Martin, Professor Emeritus / 903 5667426

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