Surveillance on Today’s Campuses

NSA-like surveillance on American campuses? Oh, yes. In a fascinating column for the Guardian, FIRE’s Nico Perrino cites examples ranging from Montana to Occidental to Kentucky to Valdosta State to St. Augustine’s College to Johns Hopkins, noting the prevalence of the anti-privacy pattern. Perrino leads by recalling events from earlier this year at Harvard, when university officials eventually confessed to having snooped on the e-mails of 16 house resident deans. The resident deans are officially members of Harvard’s faculty, and the searches violated Harvard policies.

The searches came after media revelations of Harvard’s largest cheating scandal in recent memory. At the time, then-Harvard College dean Evelynn Hammonds justified the searches on grounds that “we needed to act to protect our students.” Yet at least some of the resident deans exposed to the improper searches were also Harvard students (resident deans are often advanced graduate students). And, in any case, the searches seemed motivated less by a desire to protect students than to find blame for who might have exposed a deeply embarrassing event for the university–two of the students caught up in the cheating scandal were members of Harvard’s APR-challenged basketball team, a fact that got significant play in media coverage. (APR, or Academic Progress Rate, introduced by the NCAA, measures the likelihood of graduation by Division I athletes.)

Unlike the NSA, universities don’t play any role in protecting our national security. So the issue of privacy tradeoffs seems far less relevant to any discussion of privacy rights at college. Yet the Harvard episode–while extreme–is part of a troubling disregard of privacy on contemporary campuses. “At schools across the country,” Perrino observes, “administrators use similarly invasive surveillance tools to monitor everything from students’ off-campus behavior to their online speech.”

Two broader points are worth mentioning. First, as Perrino makes clear, universities’ assault on privacy comes at a cost–new companies have been formed to help universities monitor the social media activities of some of their students, new organizations exist (hired out, at a price, as consultants) to guide universities on how to restructure their disciplinary policies to minimize students’ due process protections. There’s good money to be made in violating students’ rights, and students’ tuition dollars are indirectly subsidizing the assault on their privacy.

Second, disregarding due process and privacy rarely is limited to the initial targets of the move. Two examples Perrino cites–both of which are familiar to readers of Minding the Campus–illustrate the point. At Occidental, college officials seized the campus computers of several faculty members who had counseled students involved in the OCR complaint against the school. Yet many of these same professors had enthusiastically endorsed the same OCR complaint designed to decimate the due process protections of Oxy student accused of sexual assault.

Similarly, the University of Montana blueprint–defining sexual harassment as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct”–clearly threatens faculty, even politically correct faculty, as much as students. Yet the same professors who are justifiably concerned with the blueprint’s excesses seemed to have little to say about the OCR’s “Dear Colleague” letter, which reflected a similar viewpoint.

Of all places, colleges should respect due process and privacy rights. But as the Perrino column makes clear, if anything, the reverse is true.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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