Academic Freedom

What does academic freedom mean in the digital age? I was browsing the Wired Campus blog, provided free courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and saw two stories that interested me in particular. At the university in Fresno (Cal State or UC, I can’t recall), a new policy has been put in place that allows the campus police to put surveillance cameras in teaching and research labs, though not in classrooms or faculty offices. However, undercover cops can be in classes without notice.

Why do the campus police need to conduct undercover investigations in classrooms and research labs? Maybe I’m spoiled by a smaller university, where the biggest concern of the campus police is making sure the parking lots are plowed in winter (I exaggerate of course), but I can’t conceive of a need for undercover investigations in classes or even in dorms for that matter. When we let non-warranted surveillance into our academic world, aren’t we giving up some of our freedom just by allowing it to happen?

Another story from the same issue of the blog: a professor writes of his run-in with campus police and IT officials over his research into Tor, a browser that lets users surf the Web anonymously. He was looking into it for legitimate research purposes, so that he would be experienced with it before discussing it in his class; still the police asked him to desist, waving a vague acceptable-use policy in his face along with inaccurate records of his Tor usage. They even asked him to avoid discussing Tor in class! He stood up for himself, however, and lectured the officers and IT guy on the legitimate uses of Tor (like allowing reporters living under repressive regimes to conduct much needed research) until he was blue in the face.

Good for him.

How much surveillance should we stand for? None, in my opinion. This is an issue I’ve had my students discussing for a while: how many of our rights are we willing to give up for security?


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