When Is Safety Dangerous?

Can we keep universities safe and students healthy without sacrificing the free exchange of ideas and surrendering civil liberties?

June 4, 2020

During one of the most divisive periods in American history, universities have a more important responsibility than ever to foster civil discourse and protect civil liberties. It doesn’t help that a global pandemic is forcing us to rethink every aspect of campus interaction.

As we contemplate fully online fall classes, hybrid models, and an endless variety of on-campus teaching formations, at every stage we have to consider the impact on academic speech and student privacy. How can we promote free, open, and civil debates both inside of class and out? How can we encourage students to get past the “filter bubbles” of social media that reflect back opinions and biases? How can we help students look past the ever-growing mendacity of politically-motivated speech to find truth? And can we do this without compromising students’ privacy in an increasingly surveilled environment?

Students come to universities -- at least most universities -- to be changed by their encounters with a diverse community. The singer John Legend beautifully captured the ideal questioning and opening journey of a college career in his 2009 speech to the University of Pennsylvania’s graduating College class. “There’s a certain confidence,” he said critically of his pre-college days, “that comes with being sure about the way the world works.” But once he became a first-year university student, Legend goes on, “The lines became more blurry with each new person I met, each new class I took, each new concept I learned.” Colleges and universities are places to have assumptions challenged and horizons broadened. At their best, classroom discussions are messy and end in productive self-doubt.

In the midst of a pandemic, university leadership has understandably been focused on the immediate task of creating educational experiences that continue to flatten the curve and keep students and faculty safe from COVID-19. Equally important, however, is ensuring that social distancing protocols don’t interfere with the cultural, ideological, and personal exchanges that are central to education, or, worse still, the basic right to privacy that defines a democratic society. As we plan for the fall, we have to take extra care to create inclusive environments for encounters and conversations even while teaching with online discussion platforms or speaking through masks and plexiglass barriers. Universities have the very difficult challenge of keeping students physically far apart but socially, cultural, intellectually, and emotionally in contact.

That said, the machinery of safety can’t be allowed to work against academic endeavors or the values that universities have historically encouraged: challenging authority, questioning accepted truths, and pushing back against unjustified constraint. These principles keep intellectual debate rigorous, and they need to be protected and upheld as safety precautions kick into high gear over the summer.

It is clear that teaching and learning online and studying on “de-densified” campuses will invariably come with more surveillance. Every exchange in a Canvas forum can be monitored, as can the lack of engagement. Every post on Slack or Piazza can be saved forever. Students have already expressed understandable concern about their privacy rights and potential FERPA violations that come with recording Zoom classes to make them available for those students unable to attend the lecture or discussion in person. And class recordings are the tip of the potential privacy violations iceberg.

Contact tracing apps that utilize smartphones to record all human proximity on campus and beyond may offer to reveal immediate networks of potential infection, but they also reveal every encounter and its duration that a student has, no matter how personal and intimate. As universities look to mitigate infection and speed quarantine efficacy, they need to be mindful that the understandable impulse to keep campuses safe doesn’t transform communities that encourage experimentation into communities of surveillance.

We are already too comfortable with Google and Facebook collecting, analyzing, and commercially weaponizing our personal queries and posts. We don’t think twice about Target or Walmart monitoring our every move in their stores. But we can leave Target and its monitoring behind. We can choose to not shop at Walmart. All we lose is the bag of chips we were intending to buy or the low-cost hand towels. The stakes are higher with a university education, and the choice to opt out of the chance to get a college degree because of invasive surveillance resonates over a life time. As data collection and analysis seeps into all aspects of university life, we need to ensure that its uses don’t undermine the freedoms and personal protections that give universities their core value and enable learning.

Of course, there is nothing new about surveillance on campus or in universities’ electronic infrastructure. But university leaders are currently contemplating major escalations in abridging its community’s rights with the goal of protecting public health. We just need to be sure that we don’t pay too high a price for safety, and we need to be careful that the emergency doesn’t live on indefinitely. Liberties temporarily conceded in the name of immediate safety, run the very real risk of not returning after the pandemic.

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