Fairfield professors have become increasingly vocal about the decision that, they say, would effectively delete 10 years of data, software development and reporting algorithms.

Mentor, the course management, registration and information hosting platform, is set for official shutdown on March 30.

Since last August, faculty have questioned the reason behind Chief Information Officer Paige Francis’s decision to shut down the widely used course management system. Francis made the decision to shut down Mentor because she said flaws in the coding posed security risks for Fairfield. Some faculty have called the emergency shutdown a “manufactured crisis.”

At the request of the Academic Council, the Educational Technology Committee completed a five-month-long investigation, the implications of which 55 faculty members called “unfavorable” in a letter to the editor featured in the Feb. 19 issue of The Mirror.

The ETC report, which investigated how and why the decision to shut down Mentor was made and the appropriateness of said decision, culminated in a request from the ETC rather than a conclusion:

“… We recommend that CIO Francis and ITS: 1.) honor Fairfield’s contract with Axiom Education, work with it to fix any remaining concerns in Mentor, and restore it to full functionality; or 2.) demonstrate the severity of Mentor’s alleged flaws in a transparent and convincing manner that justifies turning it off permanently,” the ETC report stated.

According to Dr. Michael T. Tucker, professor of finance, the Mentor system was developed by Dr. Curt Naser, professor of philosophy, in collaboration with “hundreds of faculty and administrators at the university” over the course of 10 years.

“[Mentor] does what we need it to do. At any point if we needed something added, [Naser] modified or added to the software. There is no such interface with Blackboard,” said Tucker. Although Tucker’s statement is accurate, Blackboard’s website does have a section where consumers can suggest new features. Blackboard did not respond to The Mirror’s requests for comment.

While Mentor started simply as a course management system, the developers at Axiom Education – a company Naser founded – added other features to meet Fairfield’s specific needs.

“I was chair of the Dolan School of Business Assessment Committee that over the course of the 10 years helped Professor Naser configure Mentor as a premier assessment tool,” said Tucker. “When we started creating our accreditation mandated assessment of learning we looked for existing software. It did not exist.”

After helping Naser create this pioneer software, Tucker said the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business cited their “work and the software that provided and the software we used as an example of best practices in the educational field.”

Francis and her staff began work at Fairfield 15 months ago, meaning that her department has had no prior experience working with the software.

“I mean we’re all new basically, so there is no preconceived notions coming into this, there is no conspiracy theories involved in this, there’s none of that,” said Francis.

The ETC investigation determined that claims about problems with Mentor were invalid.

The inconclusive report was not enough to convince Fairfield administrators that Mentor was safe.

However, Francis confirms all FERPA violations, a security flaw which originally raised questions with the Mentor system, have been fixed by Axiom Mentor. The unresolved issue of problems in the “back-end of the system,” remain.

The ETC report was published with no conclusion as to what “back-end” issues in the software were.  Professors against the shutdown of Mentor say they have never been told what those “back-end” issues are, specifically.

“From what we can tell, after the shutdown, ITS did not spell out what Axiom Education would need to fix in Mentor, nor did it give Axiom Education the opportunity to do so,” Fr. Mark Scalese, S.J., chair of the ETC, told The Mirror.

For Francis, an explanation to these “back-end” issues is difficult to explain to those who are not experts in the field.

“I get what they’re asking for, but we’re not going to be able to show them the smoking gun that they’re looking for, this is just based on about 100 years of expert experience in this kind of thing,” said Francis.

Despite the lack of communication between Francis and the ETC on the “back-end” issues, Francis and ITS did offer to meet to discuss the issue, according to Naser.

“They offered to meet with me in November and I said, ‘No, I want it in writing. Tell me what it is you have a problem with,’” a request that was never fulfilled, Naser said.

When asked if Mentor would be reinstated if the “back-end” issues were resolved to her and ITS’ satisfaction, Francis replied, “… At this juncture I would say no, because we don’t have confidence in the Mentor system and we don’t know what it would take to build it up to be sort of competitive.”

For Francis, Blackboard offers more features, such as the ability to collaborate with other institutions and is an industry standard. She added, “You would be hard-pressed to find a technology professional in Higher [Education] today that doesn’t have experience with Blackboard … We’re just going on our expertise here.”

With faculty and administration at a stalemate, Mentor supporters have taken to the opinion section with letters to the editor over the past few weeks.

“The administration’s position is that the CIO simply has the authority to make all decisions relating to technology, period,” said Dr. Richard DeWitt, professor of philosophy, “But that’s not true.”

According to the ETC report, although the Board of Trustees and administration have the authority to make decisions without the consent of the faculty, it is in their best interest to act on issues in a manner that makes the faculty feel “valued and respected.”

Naser agreed, saying, “If they want to change course management systems, do so, but do it through the proper channels. Don’t scapegoat. It certainly made me feel very small.”

ETC Mentor Report

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