Scott Dexter: Intersections of CUNY History & Open Source Tech.

Since the beginning of the academic year the OpenCUNY community has been discussing the politics of being “Open” as we envision what OpenCUNY can be in the future. 

In the Fall semester, on a grey day following the election, we kicked off that discussion with a wonderful talk by Dr. Scott Dexter, Professor of Computer and Information Science here at the Graduate Center and at Brooklyn College (Dr. Steve Brier, Professor of Urban Education and Director of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate Program, responded). Scott graciously allowed us to publish his remarks and we do so below.

Scott parses the difference between open and free, words that are deeply embedded in the ideologies of digital communities like us. Situating the ideologies of “open source” and “free software” alongside the history of our CUNY community encourages us to think about how, even in communities such as ours, power still functions when we log in, when we use it to teach, when we request plugins, and when we publish our own research and creative work on OpenCUNY. 

Feel free to share your thoughts below, as well. 

— OpenCUNY Coordinators

“Free” and “Open”: Intersections of CUNY History and Open Source Technology

Scott Dexter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit

“Think ‘free speech’, not ‘free beer.’”

Those of you who follow the free software movement probably know that Richard Stallman, the movements prophet-in-chief, has developed many ways to talk about what free software is. But he has never famously said, “think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free tuition.’

There are probably several good reasons for this. Here’s one: “Free tuition” is most directly apprehended, especially in a post-Bernie US, as a social good, an investment in the infrastructure of a democratic society. It doesn’t contrast as starkly with “free speech” as “free beer” does, even though the per capita cost of “free tuition” is much larger than the per capita cost of “free beer,” in most cases.

To put it another way: it seems like the “free” in “free tuition” might actually have something to do with freedom.

That possibility was made fairly explicit in the address of the President of the Board of Education at the founding of the Free Academy, CUNY’s progenitor, in 1849. The State legislature had passed an Act granting the Board of Ed the power “to establish a Free Academy for the purpose of extending the benefits of education gratuitously to those who have been pupils in the Common Schools of the City and County of New York.”

In his address, the Board of Ed President, Robert Kelly, asserted that, “The larger the proportion of well educated intelligent people there is in a free community, the wider as a general rule will be the diffusion of popular education, the more will its want be felt by those whom it is to benefit, and the more will it receive of effort on the part of those who guide public opinion.”

So, perhaps the freedom of a community is intimately entangled with the out-of-pocket price of education available to its members.

* * *

Of course, this slippage between free as in “gratuitous” and free as in “community” illustrates a point very well understood by free software activists: the English language has a really hard time with the word “free.”

One alternative usage relies on the word “open.” As in, “open source software.” And, more recently, “open access,” “open science,” and probably other modalities of open inquiry. Many CUNY scholars are directly involved with these practices. Simultaneously, at CUNY, we study and work in an environment substantially structured by the political tensions represented by the phrase “open enrollment” or “open admissions.” Is there any relationship between these “opennesses” and the freedoms I started with?

Let’s start with the more obvious stuff: open access and open science. Peter Suber offers a brief definition:

Open-access literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. Open-access removes price barriers and permission barriers. The Public Library of Science shorthand definition —”free availability and unrestricted use”— succinctly captures both elements.

That is—and I’m generalizing a bit here—open inquiry emphasizes the removal, or the absence, of barriers and restrictions, on the premise that scholarship, conceived broadly, thrives in a barrier-free environment.

What about CUNY?

It’s worth remembering that the Free Academy was really only open to people who had completed public high school and not, say, students from Catholic school. And Academy matriculants also had to have performed well on their exams. Throughout the first part of the 20th century, admissions standards were slowly raised, as well–as demand for an essentially fixed number of seats increased, a minimum high school average of 72% was set in the 20s and raised to 87% by the 60s. The faculty and student body were almost entirely white, too, and in the late 60s, students began demanding CUNY admissions reflect the racial demographics of the public school system. In May of 1969, after a weeks-long student strike, the CUNY Board announced the policy that has come to be known as Open Admissions: all students with an 80% high school average or in the top 50% of their graduating class could attend CUNY.

So, clearly, open admissions at CUNY removed some substantial barriers to access for students of all races.

Now, open-source software. This is a term that arose out of the free software movement, although it is not precisely synonymous with free software. One good way to get a sense of the differences is to look at two definitions–the Free Software Definition and the Open Source Definition. The Free Software Definition says:

A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

A program is free software if it gives users adequately all of these freedoms.

This definition has a clear emphasis on, and concise statement of, user freedoms–it can be boiled down even more. Freedom to run, freedom to study, freedom to redistribute, freedom to distribute modifications.

The open-source definition ( has a rather different tone and emphasis. It begins:

Open source doesn’t just mean access to the source code. The distribution terms of open-source software must comply with the following criteria:

MUST. COMPLY. Makes you want to learn more about those criteria, doesn’t it? In fact, there are 10 of them, and I will not declaim them all here. But here’s the first one:

The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.

A few obvious facts about this text:

  1. It’s written by nerds, for nerds. You can’t begin to figure out what this means unless you have a good guess about what “component of an aggregate software distribution” might mean. It’s really uninviting to anyone who’s not an expert.
  2. It’s focused on licenses–legal documents–whereas the free software definition is focused on programs and their users.
  3. It’s obsessed with restriction. In fact, the “Annotated” version of the open-source definition–recognizing that the definition itself is too turbid for mortals to comprehend–goes on to explain:


By constraining the license to require free redistribution, we eliminate the temptation for licensors to throw away many long-term gains to make short-term gains. If we didn’t do this, there would be lots of pressure for cooperators to defect.

Because I slightly abused Stallman’s language earlier, I’ll quote him directly on this: “[The Open Source movement] does not say users should have freedom, only that allowing more people to look at the source code and help improve it makes for faster and better development. This is the point that ‘open source’ was designed not to raise: the point that users deserve freedom.” (Stallman

But, at the same time, open-source software, along with open access and open enrollment, emphasizes the elimination of restrictions that would prevent people from utilizing resources, information, and tools.

* * *

Of the three definitional texts I’ve quoted (open access, free software, open source software), one of these things is not like the others. The free software definition is unique in using the language of “freedom to,” rather than “freedom from.” It says, this program is for you: you can do whatever you want with it, but we really hope you use it improve yourself and your and our community. Go forth and exercise your freedom!

In Decoding Liberation, Samir and I describe free software (specifically) as having a “pedagogical aesthetic” (and I have to thank Erin Glass for recently reminding me about this). The free software community is deeply dedicated to teaching people to be able to manipulate the code and devices that construct their worlds. It’s hard to say exactly the same about open access and open source—while those movements may (and often do) create spaces in which people can teach, learn, and exercise their freedoms, the priorities are different. Or, in slightly philosophical terms, open source and open access focus more on negative liberty—an absence of interference; the free software movement is more concerned with positive liberty—the possibility for self-control and self-determination.

I think Stallman, and free software activists in general, would easily recognize themselves in those words from the founding of the Free Academy: “The larger the proportion of well educated intelligent people there is in a free community, the wider as a general rule will be the diffusion of popular education, the more will its want be felt by those whom it is to benefit, and the more will it receive of effort on the part of those who guide public opinion.”

So, what about CUNY today, and what about openCUNY particularly? It seems to me that at its best, CUNY as an institution advances negative liberty, reducing barriers to access to education. But as an educator, I’m extremely interested in the distance between freedom from tuition and the freedom to learn. This distance is vast, this distance is quotidian, this distance is local and often traversed underground. All of us who teach here confront that distance. If I say, “I have open office hours from 2 to 3 on Thursday afternoons,” no-one shows up. It’s only taken me 20 years of teaching to realize that if my students are actually empowered, in the classroom, to shape their own learning, then they’ll come talk to me in my office. That’s the difference between negative and positive liberty.

So I’ll conclude with a big question to which I have no ready answer: how can we put technology at CUNY at the service not only of freedom from but also of freedom to?

What if we tried to bring the pedagogical aesthetic of free software to all the technology we touch at CUNY? That could mean all sorts of things:

  • Interrogate our “information environment”–how does power manifest in this context? Where and how should it be blocked, diverted, or subverted?
  • If we teach with technology, can we be proactive and explicit with our students about the licenses that apply to the software we use (or are mandated to use).
  • When we can choose the software we use, can we choose free software more often, and be mindful of the benefits of that choice? which is as radical as it is difficult.
  • How can openCUNY advance these kinds of projects? If openCUNY is a medium, what is its message–or should it be more than a medium?

11/9 Event: CUNY History & Open Source Tech

“Free” and “Open”: Intersections of CUNY History and Open Source Technology

Free tuition.
Open enrollment.
Free and Open source software.

On November 9th, OpenCUNY will welcome Dr. Scott Dexter (Brooklyn College & The Graduate Center) to discuss connections between the history of the Free Academy and the policy of open admissions at CUNY and the politics of the Free and Open Source software movements. Dr. Steve Brier (The Graduate Center) will act as respondent. The talk and following discussion will focus on paths forward for CUNY, OpenCUNY, and the larger open source community.

Registration is encouraged! Sign up via this link:

This event may be relevant to individuals interested in digital pedagogy, CUNY history, free and open source software, and technology available at CUNY.

Wednesday, November 9 @ 6:30pm

Room 5414 (light refreshments will be served)
This event is free and open to the public. No computer skills required.
About the Speaker: Scott Dexter, Professor of Computer and Information Science, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNYScott has taught at CUNY since 1998, shortly after getting his PhD in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Michigan. While his formal training is in theoretical computer science, his research and interests span a range of social and humanistic phenomena. He is the co-author, with philosopher Samir Chopra, of the 2007 book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open-Source Software, a recipient of over $1 million of funding from the National Science Foundation, and eventual author of a monograph entitled American Android: Race, Gender and Artificial Humans in the US, 1895-2719.
About the Series: This is the first event in our Open Up! Series, a year long talk and workshop series focused on open source software and future developments for open source platforms such as OpenCUNY.

Welcome to Fall 2016!

OpenCUNY would like to welcome you to the Fall 2016 semester! We would also like to welcome Paul Hebert as our new Coordinator for Education and Support. This past year Maggie Galvan completed her PhD (Congrats, Maggie!) and has moved on to new and exciting opportunities. Over the summer, Paul transitioned into his role and will be working with the other Coordinators to develop an exciting series of events throughout the 2016-2017 year!

OpenCUNYThis year OpenCUNY will host an event series around the theme, “OPEN”. These events will include panels, workshops, and discussions about open source culture and tools, open access publishing, open/universal design, the future of OpenCUNY, and more. Check back soon for more information.

As usual, we will continue to support graduate student work on the OpenCUNY platform. Remember that you can reach out to the Coordinators at any time for support, one-on-one consultations, or to request a theme or plugin. We have also been piloting an initiative to offer small grants to programs, chartered organizations, or informal student groups that would like to host events focused on website development on OpenCUNY. If you’d like to host an event to set up a new site or build out an existing site on OpenCUNY, get in touch with us!

As your semester gets underway, we look forward to what you will create on OpenCUNY. The Coordinators’ role is to make sure that OpenCUNY runs seamlessly. We always want to know what’s going on throughout the network so please reach out to us if you ever have an issue, big or small. You can reach all the Coordinators at or feel free to reach out to us personally.

Happy Fall!

DSC Job Announcement: OpenCUNY Coordinator for Education & Support

Dear OpenCUNY Participants,

We are hiring a new OpenCUNY Coordinator for Education & Support. Applications are due by May 2 to Read and download the full position notice below. If you have any questions about this position or about OpenCUNY, please email

Job Announcement from the Doctoral Students’ Council
OpenCUNY Coordinator for Education & Support
Applications due: May 2, 2016

The OpenCUNY Academic Medium was formed in early 2008 to provide student organized, open-source, social media for the The GC community. OpenCUNY ( advocates on behalf of Graduate Center students and provides access to a free and open source digital media platform.

The new Coordinator for Education & Support will start on July 1, 2016, and be paid an annual stipend of approximately $6300 through monthly stipends. The OpenCUNY Coordinator stipend can be combined with other graduate stipends and fellowships without issue. Applicants must be matriculated Graduate Center students and participants of with web development experience relevant to WordPress.

The open position of Coordinator for Education & Support shall be responsible for:

  • serving as primary liaison to OpenCUNY participants, including intake of requests;
  • conducting workshops, creating support materials, and identifying relevant external support materials;
  • promoting OpenCUNY;
  • analyzing existing usage of OpenCUNY, with the aim of improving participant experience.

The successful applicant will work with the Coordinator for Planning & Development and the Coordinator for Organizing & Action on the following:

  • facilitating communication and decision-making among the OpenCUNY Board,
  • performing maintenance on the digital medium, including theme and plugin updates, bug checks and troubleshooting
  • administering participants’ accounts and requests
  • ensuring the reliability of the medium and adoption of open standards, and
  • ensuring that all activities of OpenCUNY are in compliance with the OpenCUNY Terms of Participation and DSC Constitution and Bylaws.

It would be swell if you also had the following:

  • strong back-end and network administration experience with WordPress, preferably multisite
  • experience with or willingness to learn server-level operations, e.g. cPanel, MySQL, WHM
  • a collaborative work ethic and ability to work efficiently asynchronously
  • desire to engage groups within The GC, other CUNY campuses, and the greater NYC Community through the planning of events
  • dedication to building and preserving support structures and institutional memory

If you have any questions about this position or about OpenCUNY, please email

To apply, please send a cover letter, CV, and one-page descriptive list of digital projects and experience, by May 2, to Amy Martin, DSC Co-Chair for Student Affairs:

Download (PDF, 88KB)

Reportback & Resources from Preparing for the Job Search: Building Your Website

On Thursday, March 10th OpenCUNY hosted an event, Preparing for the Job Search: Building Your Website, focusing on the basics of how to create an academic website with a bio and CV. The event was divided into three parts. First, Jennifer Furlong from the GC’s Office of Career Planning and Professional Development walked us through the basics of developing a CV, an academic bio, and some places online you may want to also build your presence, such as and LinkedIn. Slides from Jennifer’s presentation can be viewed below.

Download (PPTX, 113KB)

Note that Jennifer Furlong didn’t include these in her slides but noted you might also want to check out Orcid and Google Scholar. You can also access a number of resources through the website for the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development.

Then, the OpenCUNY team walked participants through five OpenCUNY sites to illustrate common practices and various options for building a personal site. Check out the websites below, created by GC students and alumni, that we discussed for ideas on best practices:

Note that all of these students and alumni consented to having their website included in our workshop. If you have positive feedback regarding their websites, feel free to get in touch with them!

Lastly, the OpenCUNY Coordinators guided students in posting their academic bios and CVs on their own websites. In this hands-on portion of the workshop, participants collaborated one-on-one with the OpenCUNY Coordinators and followed a guided tutorial on This tutorial explains in detailed steps methods and considerations for posting your academic bio and CV on your own website. Even if you were unable to make the workshop, we hope that this guide will get you started with your website. Don’t hesitate to be in touch with the OpenCUNY Coordinators about further steps and peruse other posts on, a repository of how-to posts written by the OpenCUNY Coordinators.

For further reading and ideas on the topic, check out these articles and resources that the OpenCUNY Coordinators have compiled from elsewhere on the web and suggest your own in the comments section:

Jennifer Furlong has also co-written many articles on the academic job search on The Chronicle of Higher Education and Chronicle Vitae. Browse through these articles, including one of the most recent, “When the Job Search Seems Hopeless”.

OpenCUNY Spring 2016 Welcome; Get Your Program or Organization Connected!

In our welcome to Spring 2016, we’d like to introduce you to some initiatives for this coming spring, as well as remind you of existing support.

  • Academic website-building workshop on Thurs., 3/10, 6-7:30pm. We will be hosting an event in collaboration with Jenny Furlong of The Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning and Professional Development about building a professional website on OpenCUNY for the academic job search. All students are welcome. Read more about this event & RSVP here.
  • Host an OpenCUNY-sponsored workshop for your Program or Student Organization. This spring, OpenCUNY is piloting an initiative where programs or student organizations can host events geared around setting up or building existing websites on OpenCUNY. OpenCUNY may provide a small budget for food, drinks, or supplies for such an event. Apply here.
  • Hosting a conference at the GC? Get advice from OpenCUNY about how to integrate a website to make all that work easier for you! And have it look awesome, too! Contact
  • We will be hiring… soon! We will be hiring later this spring for the position of OpenCUNY Coordinator of Education and Support, as Maggie Galvan will be graduating. Watch this space for more information, which will also be circulated through the OpenCUNY listserv, the DSC listserv, and other listservs at The Graduate Center, CUNY.
  • Contact us with issues, big and small. As OpenCUNY Coordinators, our role is to make sure that OpenCUNY is running seamlessly so that you can create awesome websites and develop your digital presence. First and foremost, we are here to help you. We want to know what’s going on throughout the network so please reach out to us if you ever have an issue, big or small. You can email all 3 coordinators at, or reach out to one of the coordinators personally.

OpenCUNY Fall 2015 Welcome; Our New Homepage & Activity Page

We at OpenCUNY would like to welcome you to the Fall 2015 semester, and we look forward to what you will create on our platform this academic year. As you’ll see on slides projected around The Graduate Center featuring current students and alums talking about what they love about OpenCUNY, OpenCUNY supports a diverse, engaged community cognizant of the challenges and opportunities of evolving digital culture.

OpenCUNYcontextThis summer, we, the OpenCUNY Coordinators, have been hard at work to develop OpenCUNY to better serve the needs of our community. In consultation with the elected OpenCUNY Board, we redesigned our homepage and the activity page that collects together and transmits public OpenCUNY posts to Twitter and Facebook. As part of our homepage redesign, we now have an image slider that features active sites across OpenCUNY. If you’re interested in having us feature your site, fill out this short form (linked also in our sidebar).

Remember, whether this is your first or last semester, OpenCUNY supports you. We’re open to both online consultations and in-person meetings; you can sign up for both of these through our list of contact forms. If you’re new here, you can join OpenCUNY and then access our Starter Kit on, a repository of informational, how-to posts. Our newest post, “How to Choose a Theme: 5 Tips,” will be of interest to those just starting off and those looking to redesign or think more about their site design. If you’re getting ready to graduate, consult this post about how OpenCUNY continues to encourage your research as an alum.


Get answers

Visit for tutorials, forms, and suggestions to build your OpenCUNY site!

Build your voice

Check out Mediated, one of the oldest active blogs on OpenCUNY, where alum Dr. Kiersten Greene writes on the intersections between digital research and pedagogy.

Build your organization

Like the CUNY Adjunct Project, you can use OpenCUNY to spread the word about events and activism!

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