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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ambitious NYU must look to Harvard, MIT

What will it mean to be a top-tier university 20 years from now? Some in NYU's administration are staking the future of our university on the hope they know the answer. They dream of global networks and seek the funds to make their international mirages materialize. They reimagine cities with the same gusto that they redefine the research university's role in them. They expand across rivers and oceans with divining rod in one hand, cap in the other. There is ambition and hope and no promise of success.

The goal seems clear enough: vaulting NYU into the ranks of America's elite universities. But in their rush, we wonder whether some in our administration are overlooking the changes that will genuinely revolutionize universities by spreading information on a truly global scale. Frankly, its old news: Technology, and how universities choose to use it, will be the anvil on which new reputations will be forged. The universities that embrace it will lead their peers into the 21st century - they will be, if they are not already, among our nation's finest. This includes podcasting, open courseware and the digitization of library holdings. It also includes open access.

Never heard of it? We didn't either until word came in that yesterday, Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Science voted in favor of an Open Access policy, the first in the nation. This plan allows for FAS's faculty to post their articles and research online, bypassing exclusive deals with scholarly journals while offering content to everyone with internet access. For free. This will distribute scientific and scholarly research to many while leveling costs on a select few - primarily, the university itself.

How will it work? Every article written by any FAS faculty member will automatically be deposited in an open-access repository maintained by the university's library, unless the professor specifically asks to opt out of the database. The authors will still be able to publish their articles in the journal of their choice; they would continue to maintain copyright over their work. Instead of searching through costly journals, a growing body of research will be located in one (hopefully) easy-to-use spot. Everyone stands to benefit: students, professors, universities and the many who seek study for its own sake. The success of MIT's open courseware - just look up professor Walter H.G. Lewin - proves that they exist, while giving new life to NYU's old motto: "A private university in the public service."

If we want to know what it will take to become a top-tier research university, we don't have to look far. Let's just hope it's not old news before NYU catches on

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