Privacy SOS

On university administrations and the surveillance state

University presidents are in unique and powerful positions, overseeing institutions that are supposed to protect and foster free critical inquiry, and serve as safe-zones for the pursuit of intellectual investigation, open debate, and dissent. That's why it's particularly disturbing to witness the transformation of Janet Napolitano from DHS director to university system president.

In September 2013, former director of the Department of Homeland Security  Napolitano became the president of one of the nation's largest public university systems, the University of California. In her role as president of the UC system, Napolitano oversees almost 19,000 faculty members and over 200,000 students, as well as a staff of nearly 200,000.

Soon after she started the job, Napolitano embarked on a "listening and learning" tour of all the UC campuses. She was reportedly met with protest by immigrant and undocumented students, who did not forget that their university president once steered the biggest deportation ship in the history of the United States. (The Obama administration will soon have deported two million people, most of whom were kicked out of the country during Napolitano's reign at DHS, the parent organization of ICE.)

But it's not just students who are perturbed by the choice for UC system president. Some faculty also have also voiced their opposition to Napolitano's appointment, and to the opaque and antidemocratic process that facilitated it. UC Irvine Middle Eastern History professor Mark LeVine worries that the interests of students are not served by the hiring of a university president well-versed in complex bureaucracy and government surveillance, but completely ignorant of educational theory or praxis. "Secretary Napolitano has no professional experience in higher education," LeVine writes.

[But] the areas where Secretary Napolitano does have experience raise even greater concerns: security, surveillance, intelligence, immigration and border control.

These are all sectors of government and industry defined by values that are the antithesis of the commitment to the free exchange of ideas, open and public expressions of dissent, the first amendment, the fourth amendment, and the privacy rights of faculty, students, and staff that must define the life of any university. Secretary Napolitano has been responsible for policies including (but not limited to) confiscating and searching through travellers' computers without a warrant, participating in broader government surveillance activities such as those precipitating the latest NSA scandal, and managing the highest deportation levels on record. Her Department also has warned employees that they can be penalised for opening a Washington Post article containing classified slides about the NSA. All all of these activities, even if "legal" (whether they are, or should be, constitutional is another matter), clearly violate core principles of academic freedom, free speech and the creation of a safe and nurturing environment for students regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality or political views that every university must provide.

Some might read Professor LeVine's comments and think, "So what? What do any of these students have to worry about if they aren't doing anything wrong?" History provides some valuable lessons here.

During the Red Scare and the COINTELPRO era, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI worked tirelessly to monitor and disrupt the activities of student activists. Seth Rosenfeld's book "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power" describes the FBI's efforts to undermine and attack student radicals in the UC system. But the FBI wasn't just after students. Any professors who expressed political views to the left of center, engaged with student activists, or were suspected of being associated with anyone named in the FBI's radical and communist files was also a target of bureau operations. As Rosenfeld's book demonstrates, having people inside university administrations was key to Hoover's success in both keeping tabs on left-wing campus organizing, and creating an environment of fear and hostility for faculty members viewed as leftists or insufficiently patriotic.

One document from COINTELPRO papers shows in black and white how FBI agents meddled in the internal affairs of universities, effectively intervening with administrations to depose left-wing professors. Describing efforts to sabotage "New Left" activism at the University of Pittsburgh, an agent wrote in April 1971:

On March 12, 1971, in accordance with authority granted in Bureau letter to Pittsburgh dated 3/11/71, information concerning the arrest and conviction of [REDACTED], who is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, was furnished to [REDACTED].

[REDACTED] advised that he was aware that [REDACTED] continues in his position at the University of Pittsburgh but that he had been recently advised by a representative of the administration at the University that [REDACTED] has reached a "dead end" at Pittsburgh and that it is highly likely that in the near future [REDACTED] will seek employment elsewhere. [REDACTED] was most appreciative of receiving the information concerning the conviction of [REDACTED] and indicated that in the event the opportunity arose to make use of the information, he would do so. He was impressed with the necessity of maintaining Bureau's interest in this matter in the strictest confidence and advised that he realized the Bureau's position and that he would in no way divulge the Bureau's interest in this matter.

Another FBI "New Left" COINTELPRO memo from 1971 describes similar efforts to monitor and interfere with professors' academic pursuits and job security:

The Bureau, in letter dated 12/31/70, approved a Mobile suggestion for the mailing of an anonymous letter to [REDACTED] University of South Alabama, Mobile, Ala. concerning two instructors of the University who were supporting the production of an underground type newspaper at the University known as "Rearguard."

This letter was anonymously mailed to [REDACTED] on 1/8/71. As pointed out to the Bureau in Mobile [REDACTED] when contacted on another matter, advised that the two professors [REDACTED] had been placed on probationary status in view of complaints concerning their activities at the University. Both have tenure with the University, but apparently, in view of their probationary status, both are seeking other positions, and were expected to leave the University in the near future.

Find out professors are helping students with a radical newspaper? Tell a friendly administration official and watch even tenured professors leave their jobs.

These activities were commonplace. In Betty Medsger's book on the FBI's war on the left, "The Burglary", she describes how, until COINTELPRO came to light in the 1970s, every business and university approached by Hoover's G-Men collaborated with their demands and kept quiet about their cooperation. If FBI agents wanted records about students, the vast majority of university administrators were happy to comply. The one exception she names was Stanford University, which reportedly told FBI agents they could not have access to student records without a warrant.

It's absolutely critical that university administrations not only rhetorically endorse student and faculty rights to engage in democratic protest and dissent, but also that they refuse to participate in government-led witch-hunts to undermine academic freedom. Can UC students and faculty trust that Janet Napolitano, a person who oversaw a notoriously secretive and paranoid intelligence agency, will defend them when the FBI or DHS come calling for their records?

Professor Mark LeVine:

As one of the world's premier public university systems, UC's highest priority must be the production of knowledge and the protection of the free exchange of ideas without which no university can fulfill its public mandate to educate future generations and help sustain a healthy and robust economy. Since the Regents and Secretary Napolitano were unwilling or unable to offer a vigorous defence of her experience, qualifications, and views before the Regents' vote, and allow the university community a meaningful role in determining the wisdom and viability of her nomination, UC faculty should consider ourselves served notice that the UC to which so many of us have devoted our professional lives has finally been put out to pasture, and that a very different institution, administered by people with increasingly little experience, understanding or even concern for the core purposes and ethics of higher education, is emerging in its place. The question is, What are we going to do about it?

Whatever they do about it, they should be aware that powerful forces might take issue with their organizing. And if history is any lesson, they shouldn't necessarily trust the people in power to have their backs when it matters the most.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.