• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Warning Bell in the Night

The Facebook debacle and more.

July 4, 2014

I have always been intrigued by this phrase, uttered by Thomas Jefferson in his elder years when he heard of the Missouri Compromise. As a younger man, slave and plantation owner, statesman, and most importantly, the author of the Declaration of Independence, he was of the belief that slavery was a “peculiar institution” and would fade away of its own accord. Those thoughts occurred to him in the early years of the republic, when drafters of the Constitution sought to smooth over differences about slavery to protect and preserve the new nation. Jefferson was not a signer of the Constitution. He was in France at the time. But as the third person to serve in the executive branch that the Constitution created, one can assume that he believed in it.  Fast forward from 1800 when he was elected to 1820 when Congress enacted the Missouri Compromise – bringing in Maine (once part of Massachusetts) as a free state to counterbalance Missouri as a slave state -- Jefferson, at 77 years, feared for the integrity of these United States.

For me, because I am as passionate about higher education as Jefferson was about these United States, it is fitting that I should associate immediately to this phrase when I read that the latest Facebook debacle’s relationship with universities. According to news reports, universities that analyzed the Facebook data did not procure Institutional Research Board (IRB) approval.   In the class I am teaching this summer, I had to explain the history of the Tuskegee Institute so that they would understand why such approval matters (not to mention Dr. Mengele’s horrific research). 

That Facebook gathered and manipulated data without notice to its users hardly raised my eyebrow, except to quote another U.S. President, Ronald Regan, with a sardonic “here we go again.”  But that venerable research universities – including one I know pretty well – would allow themselves to be seduced by the oh-so-seductive Facebook into using the data without asking critical questions about how it was obtained or to check in with their institutional IRB is, frankly, very surprising. If I had not observed over the years the Svengali spell that some Internet Titans have on researchers, younger ones in particular, I would have said I was shocked.

In any case, I am still very concerned. If it is true that the researchers did not obtain IRB approval for this research on the theory that they, the academics, had not been the ones to obtain the data, then this revelation is, indeed, a warning bell in the night for higher education. Let me be very clear in what looms as so alarming. It is not that higher education is working with corporate America. If not before, certainly since the Second World War, higher education has received all kinds of money, influence and done collaborative research with corporations particularly in the fields of engineering and the sciences. What is different now is the thoughtlessness about the information. In keeping with the industrial nature of the global economy of the previous era, that research centered on things: chemicals, electronics, even software. But the political economy has changed. It is now a global information economy.  That is why all of these interlocking issues: data, data-mining, targeted advertising, profiling, and institutional research information are so important. Most alarming is the absence of self-conscious awareness about it, its relationship to research, law and ethics among some of the smartest and certainly most well educated people in the world.

Governance, compliance and risk management of information – which includes “privacy and security,” but which is much more than that – is ESSENTIAL to both the current state and the future of higher education. Why? Because while our research in the twentieth century was about things, including critical “things” such as high energy physics and the atom bomb, but now there is a 1:1 alignment between what we do as the core of our missions and how the global economy works. Information qua information is key and the bridge between the two worlds.  Never before in the modern era has higher education been at such a precipice of challenge and opportunity as a result. What direction we chose relies heavily on how we will manage information as a baseline matter of regulatory compliance.  But there is more.  This alignment signals an opportunity to become potential facilitators of global discourse on this very important subject. Given its experience with information historically, higher education has an obligation to contribute its knowledge and experience, and perhaps show the most ethical paths forward.   

In celebrating the Declaration of Independence let us not just celebrate the past. Let us take Jefferson as a guide for the present. Let us draw on Jefferson’s example of courage as we countenance the decisions we must make in this time and place. Will higher education step up to the plate and model leadership in the information age?


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