Backing A Digital Future



A proposed $18-billion federal trust fund to underwrite a digital revolution in America’s public and nonprofit institutions would help make knowledge produced by the nation’s research universities available to everyone, says Cathy N. Davidson, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke.
Davidson urged support of the trust fund in a background paper accompanying a report released in Washington by the Digital Promise Project, which is asking Congress to create the trust fund from monies now being amassed by the government in auctioning off licenses to the public airwaves. “The Internet represents the new frontier in education in the twenty-first century,” says Davidson. “We now have an unparalleled opportunity to make the knowledge produced by research universities available to every citizen of the United States and the world. We can turn the sale of our virtual real estate to a public good.”

Davidson and other members of the Digital Promise Project seek legislation to create a new public Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT). The public-service venture capital fund would finance innovation, research, and expansion of new information technologies into schools, museums, libraries, universities, and other cultural institutions across the country. Its operation would be modeled after the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
“We are in one of the most promising and perilous moments in the history of higher education,” Davidson says. “There is no better time than now to make a major investment in the long-term future of ideas in America.”
She likens creation of the new fund to passage of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act in 1862, signed by President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. The act dedicated funds acquired through the sale of homesteading land to public higher education. Now, the public territory involved is virtual and electronic. Those taking part in the Digital Promise Project seek “an electronic land-grant,” Davidson says. “What the Land-Grant Colleges Act achieved for modern research universities in this country, the Digital Opportunity Investment Fund does in our time.” Without such funding, “The question is at what point will the various demands of the information age begin to compete with the basic research mission of the university?”
Research universities, she says, have been called on to serve the public directly: “In the Information Age, a new audience—with no direct ties to the university—has tacitly been assumed to be part of the community that
a university serves.” She cites demand for university-based websites, online library resources, and distance-learning courses for the public.
“In the past decade, research universities have absorbed tremendous expenses, in both equipment and staffing, in order to keep apace with the dizzying changes in all areas of computing, from instructional technology (such as wired and wireless classrooms) to high-speed research computing. At many research universities (including my own), the cost of educational technology rose more than 100 percent in the last three years, and rose the same amount in the previous period.”
Besides escalating costs, Davidson says, research universities face other difficulties. The Internet was first thought of as a way
for researchers across the globe to communicate with each other, but now its entertainment and other profitable uses have brought vocal calls for broadened intellectual property rights and protection for commercial content. Yet, says Davidson, the Internet should remain open and accessible to all. A pay-for-service basis will put research science and free speech at risk: “Research science and the research university depend on a level of openness, in content and in network architecture, that the current trend endangers.”
Davidson wrote one of seventeen supporting papers, “Teaching the Promise: The Research University in the Information Age,” for the Digital Promise Project’s report A Digital Gift to the Nation: Fulfilling the Promise of the Digital and Internet Age. She says she was helped in the development of her paper by a focus group of twenty Duke professors from law, business, engineering, the humanities, arts, social sciences, library science, and computer science. Ellen Mickiewicz, director of the Sanford Institute of Public Policy’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism, is also involved in the project.
The Digital Promise Project comprises public and private universities and colleges, public school systems, libraries, public television stations, museums, and other cultural and arts organizations across the United States. Support comes from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Century Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. The full report and background papers are available on the Web at

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