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According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the University of California has struck a deal with Google in which the university will provide at least 2.5 million volumes to Google for scanning. Said one of the deal’s brokers, Daniel Greenstein, of the California Digital Library,

“I understand [Google’s] ends are commercial,” he said. “But it’s one of these things where their business model, their interests, and our interests align around public access for the public domain forever and for free.”

On a Google-related note, last night my friend Matt asked me the inevitable question: “So, I’m taking bets– when do you think Google will become sentient?”

Daniel Corbett

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Global Environmental Challenges: Meeting the Needs of Today and Tomorrow

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Tobacco Regulation / Smoking Bans

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Daniel Corbett

     Like Morgan, I too am closing out my college career. Graduating from Ohio University– and from most public universities, for that matter– is nothing short of a bureaucratic obstacle course. A college student's final days are filled with deadlines, payments, and "convenient" online forms waiting to be filled out. To me this seems a far cry from the early days of the academy– times that were filled with tradition, wisdom, and professors who admittedly may have gotten a little too close to their students. Little by little, we are losing some of the great traditions that have distinguished higher education. Currently we're losing another one of these traditions: the great (or, for many, the obscure) "swim test." 

     A swim test is basically what it sounds like: a university-administered test, mandatory for graduation in which students display their physical fitness. Once a large part of the college experience, swim tests are now required for graduation at a handful of colleges in the United States. Notre Dame, MIT, Cornell, Columbia, Hamilton, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, and Washington & Lee are the only traditional universities and colleges among the holdouts. The remainder are military academies. And as recently as 1977, 42 percent of universities had some sort of swimming requirement, according to a survey by Larry Hensley of the University of Northern Iowa. The question remains, why swimming? Swim tests were developed to meet the physical and social needs of graduating seniors. They sprung up well before the age of health clubs, yoga studios, and "wellness centers." Over time, we saw the introduction of choice into physical education. Now students choose from Frisbee golf, archery, and (my favorite from the Ohio course catalogue) "water-skiing, competitive." 

     So what's wrong with choice? Shouldn't college students be able to get a good physical education and at the same time choose for themselves what courses to take? My libertarian sensibilities would incline me to agree with this critique, but I can't embrace it wholesale for the following reason. Simply put, the academy does, and should have, a special place in society. It should not be blindly beholden to the laws of supply and demand. For many, the swim tests are a time for bonding in which students cheer on one another. A Cornell professor observed, "Where else at Cornell University twhen somebody passes a test is the whole class cheering?" In an age in which we are fenced off from one another with our exclusive gated communities, our monster SUVs, and our omnipresent iPods, don't we want something that can bring us together?

     There is a strange double standard in the academy today. On one hand, we sharply criticize the "myth" of American individualism; while on the other hand we take on the Burger King approach to higher ed: "College– Have it Your Way!" I think this approach is quite problematic. At some level, the university must make valuative judgements about its curriculum, otherwise the next big major may be Bread and Circus studies. Case in point: Ohio University just lost its only environmental law class because of a lack of student demand. Its replacement? Sports law.

     This is a heavy charge, to be sure. Our problems go far beyond the loss of the swim test; they are existential problems with which academe must wrestle for quite some time. We need to ask some big questions. What should a college degree mean? How much should we allow students to shape cirricula? And finally, what should be higher education's role in contemporary society?

     I can answer one question, though. I personally wouldn't mind swimming a couple of laps in order to graduate. So long as the event is not sponsored by Pepsi and emceed by Ohio's "Attack Cat."

Daniel Corbett     

David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy has been assiduously tracking a developing censorship debacle at Penn State. The case involves a student art exhibit that has been deemed too controversial to be displayed in the School of Visual Arts. The student, Joshua Stulman received an email from the university charging that his exhibit on the culture of Palestinian terrorism "did not promote cultural diversity" or "opportunities for democratic dialogue." The university's stance amounts to outright denial of student expression on the basis of its content. This sort of thing smacks of a university "speech code." (The majority of these policies were deflated in federal courts during the 1990's.)

But Penn State has changed its tune, maintaining instead that Stulman's exhibit was rejected because of its "commercial" nature. The school refuses to show exhibits with outside sponsorship. In this case, the "commercial" argument comes into play because Hillel has offered a paltry sum ($75-$100) for refreshments following the opening.

Stulman has the evidence on his side: an email containing the obvious language of censorship. It seems, then, that the university's argument falls flat. But even so, I think there's a problem with the university's stance. I can understand the "commercial" exhibit proviso. No one wants college art to become political football. But I think the policy must know some limits. If Hillel (or any nonpartisan, student, or otherwise "small" organization) wants to help out by buying a few snacks, I don't think there's a problem. The university needs a more substantive approach to hashing out these decisions. Above all, what it needs, however, is to stop couching censorship in the language of "diversity" or institutional impartiality. Stulman's exhibit may not echo the sentiments of the university, or for that matter, many of the people who view it. But this is a good thing The future of academia depends on more victories for intellectually honest people like Stulman and fewer for the academic thought police.

Daniel Corbett

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