April 27, 2001
External Relations Annual Report:
Report of the Joint Subcommittee on Fathom.com
The Joint Subcommittee of the Budget, Education, External Relations, and Student Affairs Committees on Fathom.com was convened last fall with the mandate to gather information about the University’s relations with Fathom.com, which is a privately held C corporation that the University wholly owns. The Fathom site provides general topical information prepared by faculty and staff of participating institutions and advertises related online courses and books. A list of participating institutions is attached below. [EXHIBIT 1] A preview of Fathom can be found at www.fathom.com.
The decision to form the subcommittee was precipitated by a number of concerns that individual faculty raised about the University’s overall Internet strategy in general, and about Fathom in particular. Committee members include representatives from the External Relations, Budget, Education, and Student Affairs committees of the Senate. A committee roster is attached. [EXHIBIT 2]
The committee held meetings in October and November 2000 to discuss Fathom. The concerns raised include but are not limited to:
1. What is the appropriate legal division between Fathom and the University?
2. What financial resources has the University committed to this endeavor, and where did these monies come from?
3. What is the University’s potential to realize returns on its investment, and how will such returns be distributed among the various components of the University? (Returns to equity fall outside the University’s patent and copyright policies.)
4. What is the University’s financial and legal liability should Fathom become insolvent?
5. And more broadly, how does Fathom.com fit into Columbia’s overall strategy for online learning?
On November 17, 2000, a letter expressing these concerns was sent to Provost Jonathan Cole, whose office heads up this venture, with copies forwarded to President George Rupp, Executive Vice Provost Michael Crow, and Ann Kirschner, the CEO of Fathom. A copy of the letter was included in the Senate’s December 8, 2000, packet.
On December 14, 2000 the subcommittee met with Michael Crow and Ann Kirschner. Our conversation was lively and informative. Michael Crow and Ann Kirschner addressed each of the questions raised. Attached is a copy of the letter sent to Provost Cole with notes of Michael Crow’s replies, which are indicated by the bold typeface. [EXHIBIT 3]
Conversations with the administration produced useful background information about the University’s current online strategy. Since last spring, the University has invested $10 million in Fathom, plus $8.7 million to develop the operating platform, which the University licenses to Fathom. Michael Crow stated that the business plan is evolving as new opportunities afford themselves and as the online learning market matures. Besides the $18.7 million already committed to Fathom, the Board of Trustees has committed another $10 million over the next 2 years as new courses come online and as the paying customer base, mostly alumni and members of Fathom’s participating institutions, solidifies. Fathom is currently reconfiguring itself to better take advantage of these prospects.1 Moreover, the University’s own internal organization for online initiatives is being rationalized to reflect the University’s changing needs.2
The subcommittee held a subsequent meeting in late December. Deliberations highlighted several recurring puzzles:
•The monies used to finance Fathom come from both a $10 million gift to enhance digital learning as well as from the copyright and patent royalties held by the university. The Bayh-Dole Act allows universities to spend such monies to enhance the educational and research mission of the university. How does Fathom or similar commercial ventures meet this requirement?
•Much of this money is being disbursed outside of the normal budget process. What are the budgetary implications for the discretionary allocation of these funds?
•Many of these decisions were being made without communication with the various constituent parts of the university. How can the faculty be expected to contribute to the endeavor’s success without consultation?
•The University has set new media learning as a priority. How does Fathom fit into the University’s overall internet strategy? Would Fathom market Columbia e-courses? And if so, what is the relation between Fathom and Columbia Interactive Arts & Sciences, the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, Digital Knowledge Ventures, the Business School’s relation to UNext.com, and the various organizations and centers around the University all seeking to enhance the University’s online presence?
•How would Fathom’s internal review board protect the University’s “brand name” and reputation?
The committee recommended the following actions:
1. The Budget Review Committee should request a meeting with Michael Crow and take up the budgetary issues relating to Fathom.com and similar commercial ventures.
2. A new ad hoc committee on online learning and digital media initiatives should be established to examine the university’s overall strategy for new media learning, including online and distance learning as well as commercial digital enterprises.
3. The new ad hoc committee should be charged to discuss, among other things, on-campus oversight and assure content quality.3
The following actions were taken:
The Budget Review Committee met with Michael Crow on December 23, 2000, to discuss the growing budgetary importance of Fathom and other commercial ventures. While the meeting was informative, the Budget Review Committee was left with several specific queries regarding the apportionment of income from royalties for new business endeavors, which they posed in an April 4, 2001, letter to Provost Jonathan Cole. [EXHIBIT 5] On April 27, 2001, the Budget Review Committee will meet with Patricia Huie, Executive Director of Financial Affairs and Management in the Office of the Executive Vice Provost.
On February 23, 2001, a resolution to create the new ad hoc committee on new media learning was introduced in the Senate. After much debate, the resolution was tabled and returned to the subcommittee for reconsideration in response to concerns raised by various constituent groups over the apportionment of committee seats. A revised resolution was reported to and adopted by the Senate at its March 30, 2001, meeting. [EXHIBIT 6]
The new Ad Hoc Committee on Online Learning and Digital Media Initiatives will be taking up issues of faculty oversight and academic content review.
In the course of preparing this report, the Subcommittee invited comments from Michael Crow and Ann Kirschner. [EXHIBIT 7]
Richard Bulliet Sharyn O'Halloran
Co-chairs, Joint Subcommittee on Fathom.com
1. For background information, see the minutes of the January 26, 2001, Senate meeting for Senator Richard Bulliet’s report on the Subcommittee on Fathom.com. [EXHIBIT 4]
2. See the University Record, January 26, 2001, for a summary of the administrative reorganization under way.
3. On the Fathom.com website, course authentication is described generically: “All of Fathom’s courses have been carefully screened by an academic review board at Teachers College.”
In response to this subcommittee’s query, Teachers College Prof. Gary Natriello wrote: “The Fathom Academic Council is the group responsible for courses on Fathom. They have contracted with the TC Evaluation Center to review courses following a protocol developed by us and approved by them. The Evaluation Center is a relatively new service unit located in CEOI [Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation] to provide evaluation services to clients on a contract basis. I am the director of the Center.”
The Evaluation Center does not provide faculty oversight; it provides information for the Fathom Academic Council. The program assesses courses based on institutional quality, course design, instructor quality, student support, and student enrollment. All faculty members are remunerated for their work at the center.
EXHIBIT 1: List of Participating Institutions in Fathom.com
University of Michigan
The British Library
American Film Institute
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Victoria and Albert Museum
Natural History Museum
University of Chicago
Cambridge University Press
The New York Public Library
London School of Economics and Political Science
EXHIBIT 2: Roster of the Joint Subcommittee on Fathom.com
Richard Bulliet, co-Chair
Sharyn O’Halloran, co-Chair
EXHIBIT 3: Notes from Subcommittee’s December 14, 2000, meeting with Michael Crow, in the form of answers to the Subcommittee’s Letter to Provost Cole (November 17, 2000)
EXHIBIT 4: Senator Richard Bulliet’s report on the Subcommittee on Fathom.com and subsequent Senate discussion, excerpted from Senate minutes (January 26, 2001)
EXHIBIT 5: Letter of the Budget Review Committee to Provost Cole (April 4, 2001)
EXHIBIT 6: Rationale for the Establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on Online Learning and
Digital Media Initiatives (March 30, 2001)