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

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“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:

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