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A former dean at Lynn University has filed a breach of contract and whistleblower lawsuit against the Boca Raton, Fla., school, alleging that it committed a variety of intellectual property violations in its online higher education program. The plaintiff, Susan Saxton, told the Daily Business Review that the private university’s plans for a major expansion into the booming field of online learning has stalled badly. Saxton, an online education specialist with a Ph.D. in organization and management, alleges that after she was hired in November 2001 to develop Lynn’s proposed “College of E-Learning,” she discovered the IP violations. But rather than undertake the changes necessary to correct the illegal practices, she claims, Lynn administrators fired her in June 2002. Some of the violations involved unauthorized online use of material developed by faculty for classroom use, she said. Other violations involved unauthorized faculty use of publishers’ material. She did not provide details of these alleged violations in her lawsuit. Lynn Vice President Anthony Casale declined to discuss Saxton’s allegations in detail. “The allegations are inaccurate as to why we no longer employ her,” he said. “There were entirely valid reasons for her dismissal, which we will describe in court, if necessary.” The school has yet to file an answer to the suit. According to Saxton’s lawsuit, filed Jan. 22 in Palm Beach Circuit Court, the university fired her in violation of the Florida Whistleblower Act of 1991 — which forbids the firing of employees for refusing to participate in illegal practices — and in breach of an oral agreement with the school regarding terms of her employment. She is seeking compensatory damages for lost wages and other damages, such as disruption of her career. Lynn is a private, nonprofit, secular, coeducational school with a student body of 2,000. Founded in 1962, it is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award associate, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees. Saxton’s attorney, Jeffrey Marks, partner at Marks & Artau in Boca Raton, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But one Internet IP expert who’s not involved in the case said Saxton’s allegations sound plausible. While declining to comment on the specifics of her lawsuit, Stephen Nagin, a partner at Nagin Gallop & Figueredo in Miami and chair of the Florida Bar’s Intellectual Property subcommittee, said it’s “safe to assume” that most college faculty are “widely unaware of copyright obligations.” “Professors going into the online environment bring with them seriously flawed assumptions based on fair use of copyright material in the classroom,” Nagin said. “Often, no one sees it as an issue until it’s too late.” UNAUTHORIZED USE? Saxton, 40, formerly dean of the school of business at Minneapolis-based Capella University, which claims to be the world’s fastest-growing online university, told the Review that she had been a consultant to Lynn when she contracted in November 2001 to direct the school’s creation of the College of E-Learning. Like most colleges and universities, Lynn long has had an online instructional option in place for students who attend the school in person. But Saxton said the school’s existing program, the Institute for Distance Learning, was only an adjunct to on-site classes, most often used as a bulletin board for class assignments. She said she was hired to create something significantly more ambitious, enabling students from around the country to take a broad range of classes solely through the Internet. Lynn is one of many colleges and universities to jump into the online education field. The nascent e-learning movement at the university level is “red hot,” said Michael Lambert, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Distance Education and Training Council, a national educator’s association and accreditation agency. The trend is spurred by an economic recession that’s driving older students back to school and younger students to look for cheaper options than classroom-based instruction, Lambert said. He estimates there are a total of 1 million students enrolled in exclusively online programs and an additional 2 million with classes that mix online and classroom components. “Suddenly it’s big business, with all the problems of big business,” Lambert said, and that IP violations are a common result of schools’ rapid entrance into online education. “Understanding copyright in the new environment requires a new orientation,” he said. “You can get yourself in trouble real fast.” Saxton started work in January 2002, beginning with an inventory of the school’s existing online instruction. She told the Review she soon discovered numerous violations of IP and copyright law by Lynn faculty and administrators alike. “Most of the courses in the distance learning program weren’t owned by the school,” Saxton said. She claims that online classes in education, business, hospitality and other subjects included material developed by adjunct faculty under contracts that did not grant the university rights to their use online. Saxton said one example of a violation of copyright law occurred in a class designed by the dean of one of the university’s colleges. The class was “two mouse clicks away” from a course created by educational publisher Prentice-Hall, Saxton said. “The school paid [the dean] for cutting and pasting. They could have been sued at any moment.” But Saxton said the dean refused her request that he receive instruction in online copyright issues, and Lynn administrators failed to intervene. Saxton told the Review that she also had problems in her attempt to design an online master of business administration program for Lynn. When she brought in a team of e-education consultants for a three-day seminar on course development with university faculty and administrators, the sessions degenerated into squabbling. “We tried to emphasize how careful instructors have to be about copyright when you load materials,” said Tom Box, a professor of management at Pittsburg State University in Kansas who was one of the consultants Saxton brought in to lead the seminar. “It turned into a constant gun battle over control of course design.” COST OF DOING IT RIGHT Saxton said she took her concerns to Lynn vice president for academic affairs Kathleen Cheek-Milby and Chief Operating Officer Jack Sites, who first courted and hired her and to whom she reported. Saxton offered them a model contract for the university that would clearly delineate its ownership of online rights to courses designed by the Lynn University faculty. And she asked that the school commit to the use of experienced online course designers in the proposed College of E-Learning to pre-empt the possibility of future copyright violations. Lynn administrators responded with “academic stalling,” Saxton said. “They threw up roadblocks. They said the trustees had to decide on the financing. They had to hold deans’ meetings. It was obvious they saw me as a threat.” According to Saxton, the university suspended development of the College of E-Learning last April, and, in May, the board of trustees voted to discontinue any funding for development of new online classes. Lynn spokesman Casale did not respond directly to Saxton’s claim that the university had abandoned plans for a major online education program. Instead, he touted the school’s existing Institute for Distance Learning. But on the institute’s Web site, the link for “current classes” lists no offerings more recent than fall 2002, the “news” page has no news and the “online learning policies” page is blank. On June 28, Saxton was formally notified that she was fired, effective July 31. “They said that the university no longer requires my services,” she said. “They said it was budgetary.” In her lawsuit, Saxton attributed her firing to the school’s concern about the cost of correcting the alleged violations of IP and copyright law. She told the Review the school was also concerned about the cost of developing the new online college. She estimated the initial price tag at $300,000 for infrastructure, course development and marketing. Saxton said the conflict over the intellectual property issues stemmed from the Lynn administrators’ lack of knowledge about the major differences between online and on-site education. “It’s not like they made an educated decision,” when they planned the new program, Saxton said. “But when it was brought to their attention how big a commitment it was, they balked.” She also cited the “hostility” of Lynn faculty to her scruples over copyright in cyber instruction. “I got bashed by them from the day I walked in,” she said. At Nova Southeastern University in Davie, which has been nationally recognized for its online programs in law and other areas, IP and copyright concerns are carefully addressed, said Ron Chenail, assistant to the school’s president for academic affairs. Creating an e-college is “not just buying some software,” said Chenail, who has been involved in Nova’s online programs since 1988. “You have to have copyright procedures in place. It’s not very sexy but it keeps you out of trouble.” Lynn University also has policy guidelines on IP and copyright issues in the online environment, said Lynn spokesman Casale. But he declined to provide specific language since “that will likely be part of any trial proceedings.” Saxton said she was reluctant to file suit against the school. “But I consulted with colleagues and it grew clear that to have a leadership post for just six months is a red flag on your r�sum�,” she said. “I had to protect my professional reputation.”

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