UMass President Emeritus Shares Historical Perspective on ‘Profound’ Challenges

Jack Wilson speaks to students on campus Image by Ed Brennen
UMass President Emeritus Jack Wilson, seen here taking part in the Donahue Center's distinguished speaker series in 2018, was a pioneer in online video conferencing technology.

By Ed Brennen

Video conferencing applications have helped people stay connected during the coronavirus pandemic — whether it’s for business, education or just to hang out with friends and family. One of the most popular platforms, Zoom, has reportedly seen its number of daily users skyrocket from 10 million to more than 300 million over the past three months.

The sudden popularity of video conferencing technology doesn’t surprise Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the UMass system and a distinguished professor of higher education, emerging technologies and innovation at UMass Lowell. He’s seen it coming for decades.

“It took a lot longer to get here than we thought it would,” Wilson says. “We thought it was going to happen in 2000.”

The “we” Wilson is referring to are his former business partners at iLinc, a tech startup he founded in 1993 while a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Along with MBA students Degerhan Usluel and Mark Bernstein, Wilson helped create one of the world’s first online business conferencing systems that allowed for video, audio and screen sharing right from a user’s desktop.

“It did all the things that these products like Zoom and Skype do today, although they do it much better now because computers are so much faster and have better screen resolution,” says Wilson, a self-described “propeller-head” who earned a Ph.D. in physics from Kent State University.

Designed for virtual corporate training and education, iLinc’s earliest customers included AT&T, IBM, Office Depot and News Corp. In early 2000, iLinc was acquired by Gilat Communications in a stock deal worth $52.5 million. By March, the company — renamed Mentergy — was valued at over $500 million on the NASDAQ stock market.

Then the dot-com bubble burst.

Wilson cut ties with Mentergy, which went bankrupt by 2002. The iLinc portion of the company managed to survive, however, and just last year was purchased by Cisco Systems.
“People are hurting. ... You’re going to see many people recognize that the UMass campuses are a valuable and viable alternative to private universities.” -UMass President Emeritus Jack Wilson

Wilson says iLinc was ahead of its time for several reasons. Not only did the technology need to improve, but the business culture needed to change as well.

“In business, we have a term called ‘switching costs.’ If you’re doing things one way, how much will it cost you in money, time, energy and learning to switch to a way that works a little better?” says Wilson, who believes that many companies accustomed to flying people around the country for business meetings were reluctant to adopt a more virtual culture. 

“The pandemic forced everyone to pay the switching cost, even though they didn’t want to. It forced a culture change, which is hard to do,” says Wilson, who suspects that businesses “will be kind of reluctant to go back to the old way” now that they’ve paid the switching cost.

Wilson, who taught an online graduate course in technological entrepreneurship this spring, believes UML faculty who had to quickly switch to virtual learning this semester “will be happy to go back to teaching face-to-face” when they can.

“But for meetings, I think people will use these tools like Zoom a lot in the future,” he says.
Jack Wilson speaks to students on campus Image by Ed Brennen
Jack Wilson, who was president of the UMass system from 2003 to 2011, says the public institutions will play an important role in helping Massachusetts overcome the coronavirus pandemic.

Getting to that future is going to be a challenge, whether it’s finding a vaccine for the coronavirus or repairing an economy that’s facing record unemployment rates and frightening uncertainty.

Wilson sees UMass Lowell and the rest of the UMass system as being “front and center” as the state takes on these “profound” challenges.

“The university is absolutely a key for Massachusetts getting back on its feet,” says Wilson, who is proud to see UML faculty fully engaged in COVID-19-related research. As founder of the Manning School’s Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship, Wilson is happy to see alumni contributing innovative work. 

He points to the role that UML and the UMass Medical School will play in a new $1.5 billion National Institutes of Health initiative aimed at speeding innovation, development and commercialization of COVID-19 testing technologies.

“This will focus on how to get innovations — anything from information technology to new pharmaceuticals — into the marketplace faster,” says Wilson, who is involved with the initiative along with two fellow Manning School of Business faculty members: Asst. Prof. of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Denise Dunlap and Assoc. Prof. of Management Scott Latham.

Wilson, who was president of the UMass system during the Great Recession of 2008, says UML and its sister campuses will once again play an important role for families across the commonwealth.

“People are hurting,” Wilson says. “They’re going to want to find less expensive ways to still send their kids to college. You’re going to see many people recognize that the UMass campuses are a valuable and viable alternative to private universities.”

Like most people, Wilson has spent the past two months hunkered down at home with his family. He’s attending meetings on Zoom and bicycling 10 miles a day to stay active.

In a way, it reminds him of another time in history when universities across the country abruptly closed their campuses.

Fifty years ago, Wilson was working on his Ph.D. in physics at Kent State in Ohio. On May 4, 1970, he was teaching a class at a nearby branch campus when four Kent State students were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war protest rally.

“Much like today, the world was not in a good place,” recalls Wilson, who had served as a faculty marshal on campus to try to keep the peace before the shootings. “I was teaching when it went down and my reaction was, ‘Oh my God. This is what I feared.’ It had been building up to something unfortunate.”

While classes resumed in the fall of 1970 and Wilson completed his Ph.D. two years later, he says memories of that day were never far from his mind.

“When you have a trauma like that, it’s like having PTSD — it’s always with you,” he says. “It’s something the world will never forget and the people there will never forget.”