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November 13, 2005

NYU administrators spying online

Administrators at New York University have been using a course-management website to spy faculty and students.

Faculty members at New York University are accusing administrators of surreptitiously listing deans and directors of undergraduate studies as instructors on course-management sites, allowing those administrators to monitor course discussions and other activity.

Although the administrators' names were quickly removed after they were discovered, the incident has exacerbated an already fractious environment at the university, where a strike by graduate students has divided professors and administrators. Many faculty members who support the graduate students have refused to cross picket lines and are holding classes off the campus. Some of them accuse administrators of infiltrating the course-management sites specifically to monitor strike-related discussions. [Chronicle Higher Education]

The Chronicle article doesn't specify how many accounts were doctored, or exactly when the administrators' names may have been added.

This story should serve as a warning to students and faculty everywhere. Online course-management tools are becoming increasingly popular. It probably won't be long before universities start pressuring companies like Blackboard to build in less-obvious ways of monitoring teaching.

So, when the NYU grad students get their new contract, I hope it includes a clause that forbids all covert monitoring of instruction. That in itself would be a victory for academic freedom.


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I am constitutionally incapable of being dour or grim when there's snow in the air. But for the sake of my audience, I'll do what I can. It's just about a week now since the NYU graduate assistants went on strike, mostly as I understand it in an effort... [Read More]


Because Backboard works so badly, I've just started posting lecture slides and class announcements to an email account everyone can access...

Good afternoon, Lindsay Beyerstein .

Both BlackBoard and WebCT are entirely open at the level of the Information Technology Services division of a school: that's where the host server is almost always located, and it is through the server that anyone with the techncal skill or the authority to do so may penetrate an online facility for any course.

Beyond this, WebCT and BlackBoard can have what are known as "trapdoors": these have always been available, and college and university administrators may implement and use them at will. Your description of how NYU administrators are doing their snooping is evidence not of the primitive state of the trapdoors, but rather of the primitive state of the administrators' knowledge of the capabilities they have at their disposal.

Because of these and other issues, I have never used a school's own server and software facilities for course content and testing (although I always set up a site on the school's server so everyone can see that I'm just as Web-enabled as the next Joe professor). The expense of using my own Web host for real content and evaluation is well worth it. Not only do I not have to worry about unauthorized spying on my students' discussions, but I also do not have to be concerned about a school laying claim to my original content merely because it was posted on the school's server.

Both WebCT and BlackBoard are abominations, anyway. Neither has been properly upgraded to standards even remotely approaching the average user's expectations for 21st Century software. Both have the cumbersome look, feel, and general awkwardness of database engines that were around just as graphical user interfaces were taking over in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, because the market is a duopoly, the typical lack of innovation and unresponsiveness to consumer needs is on gross display.

For my purposes in online assessment instruments, I use a wonderful but virtually unknown software package. The bad part about this is that I am hearing rumblings that schools are beginning to promulgate rules forbidding the use of anything other than the "approved" engines for testing and such. Worse still, I have already received a warning shot in the form of a "general memo" that seemed to be addressing exactly what I'm doing in terms of using my own server facilities, testing software, and message forums. The memo went on about "potential abuse" that could occur on the open Internet for which the school does not want to be held liable.

I'm trying to decide whether or not to respond to that memo. If I do, I'll be entirely diplomatic: I'll simply say, "Bite me."

I hope it doesn't come to that, but it probably will.

The Dark Wraith has no illusions about the inevitable end of academic freedom.

Thanks for a very thorough and informative reply, DW.

I would think that if NYU is providing the forum for discussion, it can monitor it in any way it wants. It's like expecting your boss not to read emails sent to your work account.

As Dark Wraith wrote, profs and students who want privacy should hold their discussions on a website or chatroom separate from the university's own servers. And universities trying to crack down on this sort of plan (as DW noted) is scary, but at the same time probably inevitable. What happens the first time a prof promotes some sort of illegal activity among students (a violent political rally, let's say) and the University gets sued because it didn't know what was going on? I'm not saying that happens a lot, but it could, and that's how lawyers think.

As for academic freedom, how does having class-related writing read by university officials restrict a professor's academic freedom — unless the university interferes and says "Don't write that"? Shouldn't the work-related writings of a professor be something he or she would be proud to have anyone read?

The issue is not whether NYU has the legal right to monitor discussions, but rather whether it is ethical to start singling people out for scrutiny in surreptitious ways.

As DW said, the administration already has trapdoor features that would allow it to monitor every discussion on Blackboard invisibly. If that's what they were doing, they could fall back on the "terms of service" defense.

Instead, the administration was adding the names of deans to class lists and hoping no one would notice. It's telling that those names were removed as soon as professors complained. (An NYU prof emailed me privately to emphasize that the names were only added to the lists of suspected "agitators" and "trouble-makers," not to Blackboard websites generally.)

The administration's conduct in this case is a paradigmatic example of bad faith, and the administration is disgracing the university by engaging in such tactics.

Good evening, GaijanBiker.

New York University does not have the same relationship to students as an employer has to its employees. An employer has an agency relationship with workers; as such, the doctrine of respondeat superieur is fully in force. That agent/principal configuration cannot be imputed with the university and its students. In fact, a better (although equally invalid) argument could be made that the academic institution is the agent and its students are the principals.

What is valid is the argument of academic freedom being the loose and popular way of defining the relationship of the faculty to an academic institution. Although throughout history administrators have fought it, the faculty is in absolute control of the classroom. This matter goes all the way back to the Middle Ages; and it is to the detriment of faculty that some do not understand that authoritative position. A small part of that is unions, which have become the fiat for projecting a pale ghost of academic control while the faculty has allowed the wholesale evicerating of the freedom in the large.

Provided I stay within the law of the land, what I do in a classroom—and cyberspace is part of my classroom because the institution, not I, has made it such—is not the business of administrators who are wholly ignorant of my subject matter, just as they are wholly ignorant of my craft as a teacher. Should a faculty member be incompetent, ineffective, or otherwise unfit for the classroom, it is the duty, not the "responsibility," of the faculty to ensure that the faculty member is marginalized from the classroom if necessary or wholly extricated from it if possible.

The faculty that surrenders this duty opens the door to the ignorant will of administrators.

All of that having been said, I know my subject matter better than the administrators do. More importantly, I know how to teach better than the administrators do. The popular idea that bringing up an extreme circumstance, whether it be hypothetical or anecdotal, to slice away yet another freedom stops at my door. Politicians, judges, media twits, and all manner of wag tongues can come up with one scenario after another, or one incident after another, as justification for cutting off another piece of the bedrock of civil liberties and rights of a society. I shall allow that to be done to people who are unwilling to stand for what people died to cause and preserve. But for my part, I shall keep my mind on an incident in the Middle Ages, where a Pope sent his thugs to a certain university to stop the academic, heretical work there on personal relationships to God absent the intervention of the Church. The good Pope's mercenaries were met by a ring of knights who stood their ground to protect the school from the imposition of the will of the Vicar of Christ.

Imagine that: standing up to the Lord's chosen conduit on Earth, upset as he was that there was talk that he wasn't needed when people needed to speak to their God. I cannot think of a better reason the administrator on Earth for God in Heaven would have to silence academic discussion.

And yet, the thugs who had come to crush academic freedom stood down. Apparently, they weren't all that sure God would be on their side as they charged into a wall of lances and swords.

GaijanBiker, the world is without knights because it chooses to be. That is the way of modern, cowardly surrender to those who know better, to those who are more responsible, to those who speak for God, whether He be at the side of the Vicar of Christ or in the pages of a book of rules for proper conduct in the classroom.

The world is without lances and swords in defense of freedom, that's for sure. In fact, I would encourage the modern administrator to say that to himself over and over again as he comes down the hallway to tell me how to create the best academic experience for my students.

Hell hath no fury like the bitch I become when I'm crossed by a suit-wearing idiot who's not bringing me coffee, doughnuts, and a heap of praise.

The Dark Wraith has spoken.

Management may no longer be using armed thugs to intimidate and break strikes, but they certainly haven't given up on using dirty tricks. I suppose it's another sign of the times that their most recent endeavors in the strike-busting arts involve the internet. Unfortunately I can't say that I'm surprised, and I doubt you are either, Lindsay.

I wish all of the TAs the best of luck. With tactics like the NYU administration is using, they're probably going to need it.

"New York University does not have the same relationship to students as an employer has to its employees."

I never said it did. My comment was about the professors.

Actually, re-reading what I wrote, I see I did mention "profs and students". But clearly the boss-employee relationship analogy does not apply to the students. My bad.

As for the core of your argument, DW, I guess for me the legitimacy of university monitoring and intervention depends in part on what it's designed to achieve.

If NYU is singling out profs whose views it simply doesn't agree with, and pressuring them to toe some sort of ideological line, that's clearly bad (although it may still be within NYU's rights to run itself as it wishes, with the result that profs who care about academic freedom will go elsewhere and NYU's quality will suffer as a result).

However, if the "troublemaker" profs are indeed making real trouble — encouraging illegal acts, for example — then what we are talking about is something more than a question of mere "academic freedom", and it would be foolish for NYU to ignore the situation.

DW: very interesting perspective.

Both WebCT and BlackBoard are abominations, anyway. Neither has been properly upgraded to standards even remotely approaching the average user's expectations for 21st Century software. Both have the cumbersome look, feel, and general awkwardness of database engines that were around just as graphical user interfaces were taking over in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, because the market is a duopoly, the typical lack of innovation and unresponsiveness to consumer needs is on gross display.

One possible (community-source) solution:

This is one of the more informed threads I have found on the grad student stike at NYU, except for it being more about ethics and clumsiness of the adminstration than about the unionizing issues.

DW: how many professors at NYU possess the technology chops to get around the adminstration in order to teach as they see fit? Also, how monolithic or balkanized is the IT across the various schools? My son is in GSP and says that the light use of grads as TAs in that school has made for little impact on HIS classes but many of his friends in other schools are seeing some disruption. He finds BlackBoard still works for his classes. That is only anecdotal evidence but since I am carving $40,000 chunks out of my savings every year for this "education" I am terribly curious as to just how much of the load is being carried by grad students at NYU. Nothing in the news leads me to expect a usefully frank answer if I just ask NYU administration.

I fear it is exactly questions like this from bill payers just like me that the administration is most concerned about in warning you not to work outside the channels they provide. I wish the adminstration had a bit more self confidence. The school should recognize that rather than being adversarial customers, the parents have all made the commitment to the school. The committment in my case means highest concern about the richness and quality of the academic offerings and only slightly less concern that NYU remain financially sound. The finances and the academic freedom are two legs on which the quality of the education stands. Greatest transparency into the process by which the administration balances these sometimes conflicting perspectives would be much more helpful than the administration seems to realize. Being hours away from New York and getting only bills from NYU, I get the impression that the university's decision and the subsequent job action are somehow consequences of the bean counters trying to run the show.

NYU send an email today saying that the purpose of adding privileged users to Blackboard was to keep instruction going, ie be able to upload materials etc, as opposed to snooping. Of course, you might not like this motivation either. But regarding the snooping thing, their explanation is plausible because, as correctly pointed out above, snooping would not have required this action, and the NYU IT people surely know that.


Michael--as a grad student who's near NYU and involved with my local union, I've been following this issue quite closely. One of the main problems it raises for me is, precisely as you point out, the particularly agonistic stance NYU takes toward its graduate students and its undergraduates.

But I think it is a symptom of a more endemic problem at universities across the country: no one has been able to articulate what a healthy relationship between graduate and undergraduate educational programs should look like. The professors who parents are anxious to see teaching undergraduate courses were once graduate students -- and if they became great professors, it was in part because of their graduate education, and in particular any teaching experience they gained there. Graduate student TA programs exist in part for economic reasons, but they are also essential to developing effective and responsible faculty teachers.

Moreover, graduate students, especially when working in small sections, provide a complement to the experience undergrads have with professors: graduate students can be more responsive, and often have a clearer and more recent idea of what undergraduate education is like, and how to navigate that tricky boundary between what students want and what they will benefit most from.

To put it simply, I love teaching, and I see the contribution we make as more than a way for the school to fund our education -- we provide unique value to our undergraduates. Unfortunately, most of the recent reviews of undergraduate education, for instance at Harvard in 2004 and more recently at Rutgers, see graduate students and undergraduates as, at best, competing constituents. The situation at NYU is both the clearest mark of this situation, and an exercise in throwing oil on the flames.

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