Safety, Secrecy and Security

If college campuses are to be safe spaces, the goal needs to be to make them safe for everyone—even faculty. With tenure reduced and enfeebled and secret investigations commonplace, I have seen seasoned professors tremble with fear. They feel unsafe and unsupported by administrators and staff and have seen how processes meant to protect can be turned to vendetta.

This is true, from what I hear, on almost every campus across the United States.

Two pieces on the op-ed page of The New York Times today brought this home to me this morning. The first, by journalist Judith Shulevitz, is headlined “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas.” The second, by Delia Ephron, is called “It’s a Whole New Paranoid World.” Together, they paint at least a partial picture showing why today’s faculty feel so intimidated and act so hesitantly.

The first part of the problem stems from commendable concern for privacy and confidentiality—and its abuse, often by the same people who promote it. The people controlling privacy and demanding it also are in a position to deny it—and they are often so confident in their own judgment and righteousness that they become either oppressors in their own right or tools for those who seek to damage others. There is no check on them of the sort they hold over others. Faculty don’t govern themselves in these areas, but are subject to those whose interests may be far removed from faculty concerns and needs.

Extending privacy to “safety” (the two are related: One cannot feel safe if one’s privacy is violated), too many today are willing to trample on other rights for safety’s sake, as Shulevitz argues, sometimes stomping free expression and contentious debate to the ground. Universities, she writes, “are willing to dignify students’ fears, citing threats to their stability as reasons to cancel debates, disinvite commencement speakers and apologize for so-called mistakes.” This leads to its own atmosphere of fear, one as antithetical to what our universities stand for as the lack of safety that spurs the action. Shulevitz continues later in the article:

Universities are in a double bind. They’re required by two civil-rights statutes, Title VII and Title IX, to ensure that their campuses don’t create a “hostile environment” for women and other groups subject to harassment. However, universities are not supposed to go too far in suppressing free speech, either. If a university cancels a talk or punishes a professor and a lawsuit ensues, history suggests that the university will lose. But if officials don’t censure or don’t prevent speech that may inflict psychological damage on a member of a protected class, they risk fostering a hostile environment and prompting an investigation.

Unfortunately, a retreat behind the door of “secrecy” or “confidentiality” can often provide a way out for besieged administrators. It’s easy to find means, when one is not publicly accountable, for attacking those who cause trouble, making the problem go away.

This is where what Ephron writes becomes important to contemporary academic environments—and elsewhere. She begins her essay, “There is probably nothing about me that is not in the hands of hackers.” Those of us who rely heavily on university email systems are in a similar situation: There is little about us that the colleges and universities don’t know. This can work for good and bad, of course. The situation at Marquette University concerning John McAdams and Cheryl Abbate shows just how complex and unsettling things of this nature can become.

Ephron writes, “The truth is, the thing that freaked me out most about the Sony hacking was not the theft of my Social Security number but the capture and exposure of personal email. Apparently I would rather lose all my money than be humiliated.” The same is true for most of us, and that gives our institutions a great deal of power over us, for most of us can easily be humiliated, as people are finding when they say something stupid on Twitter. On email or in chats, which are supposed to be more private, people are generally less guarded than they should be. Unfortunately, our institutions can easily use the dumb things all of us say against us and we, not wanting these things seen in public, are helpless against their threats—real and potential—to our privacy—even while they are saying that privacy and confidentiality are important to them. They force us to abide by confidentiality but are perfectly willing to break into our private emails with the argument that they “own” them when they are on university servers.

This problem, of course, is not limited to colleges and universities. It is true of all businesses and, even more so, of government—as Hillary Clinton is discovering. The only way to protect oneself is to never say anything at all in an email, about anyone or anything. Privacy has disappeared—except as something to hide behind when attacking others. That’s hard for us to accept or believe or act upon for, as Ephron says, we tend to fall back into old habits of assuming what we write and say privately is private. Worse, as she writes, “What if someone takes over my account and tweets that I don’t love America? Or that I hate dogs?” Not only is our privacy vulnerable to the whims of our institutions, but our public personae can easily be hijacked and altered, putting us in worse positions that even our own private words could do, if made public. Such possibilities put a damper on willingness to engage in free expression everywhere and by everyone. In university settings, it also has an impact on academic freedom.

During the “red scare” of the late 40s and early 50s, faculty also faced scrutiny that abrogated both free expression and academic freedom. Today’s situation may actually be even more nefarious: It is impossible today to complain about the goals of the systems that are also used to silence faculty and even to displace them (there’s no evil Joe McCarthy around, simply people whose claims of trying to do “good” cannot be denied). The irony is that structures put in place to ensure diversity, to take just one example, don’t often help African-American faculty. The very process established to promote diversity not only makes black scholars question whether or not their colleagues really see them as equal or simply the burden of affirmative action but the process can be turned against them through use of protections of privacy—or through the public use of private communications residing on university property. Rather than helping solve problems associated with race, the process can often make one wonder if it hasn’t simply driven racism underground while also providing it with a new avenue to action.

The situation is further complicated by questions of job security and more. With the reduction in tenure of the last decades, job security in academia is harder and harder to find. Couple this with the fact that, in many departments, at least 100 qualified applicants apply for any one position, life as an academic becomes extremely precarious. Willingness to speak out, no matter the topic, is dying on college campuses and real academic freedom is withering. Today, faculty lack safety (they can be attacked with impunity), they are easily preyed upon by those controlling secrecy, and they have little security. Their rights of free expression and academic freedom have become paper rights meaning little in their actual lives.

2 thoughts on “Safety, Secrecy and Security

  1. This is a very thought-provoking post.

    The overriding irony, to me, is that the Web is dense with both ill-considered and deliberately inflammatory opinions. But most of the authors of those opinions are never held to account for them because they do not hold positions that make them worth targeting or they are not so unlucky that they utter them at precisely the most inopportune historical moment.

    So the only people who are asked to account for their opinions are those in “public” positions, where targeting them serves the mixed purposes of holding them to account, of discrediting the opinions themselves, and of advancing the views and, not coincidentally, the careers of those doing the targeting.

    For every righteous critic, there is probably at least one self-aggrandizing critic, and, as you seem to suggest, it is not just that it is not always easy to tell the two groups apart, but it is also true that some of the those in the righteous group may not themselves be able to distinguish between the two motives.

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