Committee established to evaluate Mascot Network

After appearing on the Williams campus this fall to considerable controversy, the online student community Mascot Network has largely faded as a public issue. But a committee chaired by professor of psychology Betty Zimmerberg is in the process of deciding whether Mascot has a future at the College.

The six-person committee includes Zimmerberg, professor of computer science Thomas Murtagh, Interim Chief Technology Office Dinny Taylor, Registrar Charles Toomajian, Todd Rogers ’01 and Ben Isecke ’02. It will weigh issues of commercialization, privacy, student usage and campus impact in making its decision.

According to Zimmerberg, it is “just beginning the process of collecting information from students about how much they use Mascot and in what ways this software might help/hinder communication not only among students, but between all members of the College community.” The committee is also arranging meetings with interested student organizations and soliciting individual opinions.

Mascot and Williams signed a one-year contract before the beginning of the academic year. Under the agreement, Mascot services the College free of charge for the year, at which point the College must either continue the network at cost or terminate the partnership.

Some professors and students have expressed support for the latter option. Frederick Latimer Wells Professor of Computer Science Kim Bruce, co-chair of the Technology Committee currently examining a proposal from the Global Education Network (GEN), urges caution in dealing with such a commercial prospect as Mascot. “My hope is that [Mascot] goes away,” he said. “Essentially, we are selling our name or providing our name in something we really don’t control very much…. I found that very troubling.”

Jason Healy ’00, staff member of Williams Students Online (WSO), agrees with Bruce. “WSO actually was against [Mascot’s] coming in the first place,” he said. “I don’t think our opinion has changed.”

But Alex Bilsky, Mascot’s Campus Marketing Director, sees the relationship between the Network and the College as a potentially long-lasting one. “We hope to continue our partnership with Williams College and its students far into the future,” Bilsky said.

Bilsky stressed that Mascot sees considerable room for growth and expansion with the College. “Because of its diverse student body, its highly-wired campus and the multitude of events and activities every day, Williams is a perfect environment for Mascot,” he said.

Success on Campus?

There is no simple way of gauging the success of Mascot on campus, but according to Bilsky, “Williams College has been one of [Mascot’s] most successful schools.” Over 800 members of the College– students, faculty and staff– have logged onto the Network at least one time. But there is some doubt as to whether Mascot is encouraging repeat usage. Its Williams home page notes how many students are logged on at any given time; in the past week the number has consistently hovered between five and 15.

Williams is one of five institutions with which Mascot has a one-year trial contract. The test colleges cut a wide swath, including Merrimack College, Providence College, Arizona State University (where the College of Business and the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences both have Mascot pages) and Springfield Technical Community College.

Over 5100 students – not including those at Merrimack, where Mascot launches its service later this month – have accessed the Network nationwide. Bilsky states that Mascot has been “absolutely” successful in each of its trial runs.

Among the trial colleges, though, Williams is unique in at least one way: in WSO, it already has an established, student-run web community. There is considerable overlap in the services that WSO and Mascot provide, which include weather reports, event schedules, news bulletins and message boards.

Bilsky thinks the relationship between Mascot and WSO is a mutually beneficial one and praised WSO as “a great partner for Mascot at Williams, providing content to our start page that is updated several times daily.”

But Healy suggests that WSO’s presence has kept many students from using Mascot consistently. “I think that part of Mascot’s lack of reception is due to our doing many of the things that they wanted to do, such as the online facebook,” he said.

And while Bilsky finds Mascot and Williams to be well-matched, Healy is not convinced that the two parties are suited to each other’s needs.

“Mascot did not know the details of how this campus works,” he said. “This campus is wed to e-mail – everyone checks it obsessively…. Mascot is totally web-based, so they were in for a pretty big challenge given that nobody likes to go to web pages around here.”

An Uncertain Future

Further clouding Mascot’s future on the College’s campus are broader concerns that the administration must address. “I think that there are some very important issues for us to discuss, including privacy and commercialization,” Zimmerberg said.

The commercial nature of the enterprise has been a particular sticking point for some members of the faculty. In the Sept. 28, 1999 issue of the Record, committee member Murtagh discussed the possible implications of a move toward outsourcing:

“How would we feel about having some outside organization publish the Course Catalog, the Weekly Calendar and the Daily Advisor at no cost to the college on the condition that they could include advertisements in these documents?”

Bruce said that, while the College is inherently commercial in some of its dealings, its involvement with Mascot is unique because Williams is trading its name and reputation for the service Mascot provides.

“There is a continuum of things to be concerned about in terms of the College getting involved in commercial enterprises,” he said.

Mascot has attempted to widen the gulf between its service to the College and its capitalistic interests by separating its commercial links from its collegiate ones. It has also complied with the College’s request that it remove Williams name from its commercially oriented pages.

It has also emphasized that individual student information, which is available in the form of a directory, is available only to members of the College and is not given out to companies or other third party groups. Students can also alter their Mascot profiles to remove or obscure all personal information.

Still, there is concern about Mascot’s ability to sell aggregate, generalized student information to companies.

“I have no objection to us hiring a company for pay to provide the kind of services that Mascot was providing,” Bruce said. “Instead, what we are doing is having them provide us with something and what we’re providing them with in return is access to students and the faculty as well.”

Analyses of these issues will play a large role in the committee’s evaluation of Mascot, but Zimmerberg encourages student input, which should be e-mailed to Betty.Zimmerberg@williams.edu.

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