David Noble

In March 2001, David Noble was working as a professor at York University in Toronto in central Canada. His subject was the history of technology, and he had been very successful in his field. Before he started teaching at York, he had had good jobs at the Smithsonian Institute, an important museum in Washington, and at MIT, a prestigious university in Boston. He had written many books and articles.

A few months earlier, David had applied for another job at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in western Canada. The members of the ‘Humanities Department’ at Simon Fraser interviewed the applicants. When the interviews were over, the head of the department, Stephen Duguid, offered David the job. Stephen told David that the department’s decision still had to be approved by the administration of the university, but he said he didn’t think that would be a problem.

It was a problem, however. A week later, Stephen phoned David and told him that the university had decided to do a ‘background check’ on him. David was not surprised to hear this. When he had applied for the job, he was afraid that, even if the Humanities Department wanted to hire him, the administration might not agree.

David was worried because, in his writing about technology, he had criticized two things that were very important to the administration of Simon Fraser: online education and the corporatization of universities. ‘Online education’ means using the internet to give university courses. The ‘corporatization’ of universities means making universities into businesses.

The administration of Simon Fraser believed that online education was a good thing. They believed it was a good way for universities to make money, and they believed that a successful university, like a successful business, is one that makes a lot of money. David disagreed. He thought that online education was a bad thing because real education required face-to-face contact between people. And he thought that the corporatization of universities was a bad thing because, in his opinion, education should be a search for truth and understanding. Businesses, he felt, were never interested in truth and understanding, but only in sales and profit.

By 2001 most universities were offering online courses. But Simon Fraser had gone farther than others. It had created a profit-making company, called ‘Virtual U’. Virtual U was part of the university, but its purpose was to make money by developing software that other universities and colleges could use to give courses on the internet. In his writing, David Noble had not only criticized online education and the corporatization of universities in a general way, he had specifically criticized Virtual U and the people who were operating it.

When the administration of Simon Fraser told David it wanted to do a background check on him they told him the names of the people who would be doing the check. All these people had been criticized by David in his writing. One of them was the CEO — the Chief Executive Officer — of Virtual U. David realized that these people could not be fair to him, so he said he didn’t want the university to do the check. About a month later, he was told that his application had been rejected because it was incomplete.

David decided to sue Simon Fraser University. Many of the other professors there sympathized with him and encouraged him to fight against the administration. One professor in the physics department said, “In a university you have to have the right to express yourself no matter how obnoxious those views are to other people.”

- information from: The National Post (Toronto, Canada), 01.03.31, 01.05.01, 01.05.29, 01.05.31 (97.10.03)