Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Monitoring and Control of Faculty Emails, Phone Calls, and Personal Expression in the Boston University College of Communication

On April 9, 2011 I submitted the following statement and request for action to the Boston University Faculty Council Executive Committee, expressing serious concerns that I and many other faculty members in the College of Communication had about the recent revelations that the Dean of the College had been secretly and covertly monitoring faculty communications heretofore considered personal and private. The surveillance policy had almost accidentally been revealed in a memo the Dean wrote upbraiding specific faculty members for printing out material the Dean deemed inappropriate, when the Dean noted in the course of the memo that he had been monitoring for a long period of time what faculty printed on their computers without faculty members being aware of it. It later came out that the Dean had been monitoring a large number of other forms of faculty communication—including having staff members call telephone numbers that faculty had dialed to ask who the faculty member had talked to and what had been talked about.

I spoke up at the March 2011 College faculty meeting strongly objecting to the surveillance policy, and was surprised to hear from a large number of my colleagues in the following days that though, lacking tenure and being afraid of losing their appointments if they themselves spoke up, they were deeply grateful to me for speaking up “for them.”

To the best of my knowledge, as has been the case with so many other instances of my reports of ethical violations and unprofessional conduct on the part of the Dean and other administrators in my College, the Dean made no changes whatsoever in his surveillance policy as a result of my speech or my memo. The surveillance policy, to all appearances, continues unchanged to this day. 

I'd emphasize that many other pages on this site document other examples of Boston University policies involving the surveillance and control of faculty communication.  As a starter, see the following two site pages, available via the top right menu on this page: "Violations of Privacy and Confidentiality—A Continuing BU Saga" (where the College of Communication Dean, Thomas Fiedler, and the Chairman of the Department of Film and Television, Paul Schneider, without my knowledge or permission, not only covertly and surreptitiously read the texts of emails I sent to an individual unconnected with the university, but distributed copies of the presumably private emails to other Boston University administrators and staff members), and "How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students—or Suggest That They Read at Boston University" (where Dean Fiedler, again, without my knowledge or permission, read emails I sent to my students and then wrote me a memo vehemently criticizing me for having written what I had). The National Security Agency has nothing on BU; university administrators not only read and monitor faculty communications that in any normal professional situation would be regarded as being private and confidential; but, as both of the previous examples illustrate, Boston University administrators like Dean Fiedler and Chairman Schneider feel free to criticize and attempt to control (with upbraidings and administrative punishments) what faculty members write (in these two instances, to third-parties, students, and former students).


Faculty publications have also been subject to administrative monitoring and control at Boston University. Essays and interviews I posted on my official university faculty web site, and a Spring 2012 posting of an essay I wrote for an independent blog (a posting describing these sorts of administrative abuses in the university) have also been monitored, criticized, and, as far as possible, controlled and censored by two different Boston University Deans (John Schulz and Thomas Fiedler), two different department Chairmen (Charles Merzbacher and Paul Schneider), and a University Provost (David Campbell)--with administrative punishments of course being subsequently doled out to me to punish me for what I had written or said. For more details about those particular acts of surveillance, intimidation, censorship, control, and punishment, see the following site pages: "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats—Being Banned in Boston," "Making a Living or Making a Life—The Purpose of an Education," and "Losing Consciousness—Losing Invaluable Ways of Understanding," all also available in the side menu. (I would emphasize, however, that there have been too many different instances of this sort of administrative behavior, over the course of too many years, at Boston University to give more than a small sample on this site.) 


The blog page "Part 2: Ten years of Administrative Retaliation for Speaking Up to Defend the Freedom of Academic Expression Inside and Outside the Classroom" also deals with this issue and has more information about other administrative activity involving the surveillance and control of faculty communication and publication at Boston University.

I have a more general consideration of some of the reasons for this wholesale failure to respect and protect the freedom of faculty communication at Boston University in:  "The Two Cultures—The Conflict Between Business Values and the Life of the Mind," also available in the side menu.    -- Ray Carney

Administrative Surveillance, Control, and Intimidation
of Faculty Expression and Communication
in the College of Communication


During the March 2011 faculty meeting, Dean Tom Fiedler and Assistant Dean Maureen Clark of the College of Communication informed the faculty that material created on, and all information transmitted on, university equipment is “owned” by the College, and is consequently allowed to be accessed and monitored by College administrators.

Overlooking the dubiousness of the “ownership” part of this assertion (since the essays, chapters, and books written by a faculty member on a university computer are certainly not owned by the university and since recent court decisions have raised questions about whether even faculty discoveries made in a university laboratory are, in fact, owned by the university), the “accessing and monitoring” part of this assertion raises a number of serious ethical, professional, and institutional issues that threaten the free, open, and unintimidated exchange of ideas, opinions, and information between university faculty members and between faculty members and individuals outside the university.

I would ask the Faculty Council Executive Committee to formulate language to insert into the Faculty Handbook to prohibit (or at the very least, severely limit and regulate) this practice, and ask that the language be placed before the Faculty Council for a vote at the earliest possible date.


A list of the specific surveillance practices that faculty members have been informed about, and that, when questioned, Dean Fiedler and Assistant Dean Clark have admitted to, follows. (Since the administration of the College of Communication asserts its “ownership” of material created on and transmitted via university equipment and facilities, there may be other surveillance practices still undisclosed, and still others that may be instituted in the future.)

The College administration has asserted its right to read the subject listing of all material printed by faculty members on College of Communication printers, and, if necessary, to query faculty members about the specific content of the material they have printed. In a recent action, the Dean announced that he or his designated representative had reviewed the listing of everything that had been printed by faculty in the past six months, and strongly criticized faculty for having printed a number of items that they had no advance notice were forbidden to be printed. (To the surprise of the faculty, many of the prohibited items were directly related to performing their duties as teachers, researchers, and scholars.) The contents of the objectionable items were described in detail in an email sent to the entire faculty. In the March 2011 faculty meeting, when queried, Assistant Dean Clark defended this practice of checking and publicizing what the faculty had printed in this time period as a “random check of what has been printed,” offered no apology for it, and gave no reason for faculty to conclude that the “random checks” of what was being printed by faculty (and the publication of the content of some of the material) would not continue indefinitely.

The College administration has asserted its right to monitor the use of office telephones and to call the number the faculty member has called, without the knowledge of the faculty member, to check that the call was on “University business.” After being queried about this by Prof. Ray Carney, Assistant Dean Clark confirmed this policy in an email to him on March 22, 2011. A direct quotation from Ms. Clark’s memo: “we audit the bills extensively and if we see a certain number repeated by one individual we will call to verify that it is University business.” In the same email, Ms. Clark added that that in the past faculty had been told to pay for any use of the telephone that was judged by her to be “inappropriate.”

The College administration has asserted its “ownership” of (and implicit right to access and read the contents of) incoming and outgoing faculty email, but has said that it is not, in fact, at present reading faculty email and has no intention of doing so, because to quote Dean Fiedler at the March 2011 faculty meeting: “I don’t have the time.” [Note that, as I describe in the introduction at the top of this blog page, this statement is demonstrably false. Dean Fiedler and Chairman Schneider have repeatedly read, and distributed to others, without my knowledge or permission, copies of emails I myself have sent to students, former students, and individuals not affiliated with the university--and have proceeded to criticize (and subsequently to punish) me for writing what I have. The two site pages ""How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students—or Suggest That They Read at Boston University" and "Violations of Privacy and Confidentiality—A Continuing BU Saga" describe specific instances in which the presumed privacy and confidentiality of faculty email communications have been egregiously violated.] However, it is important to note that, even in cases where faculty emails are not currently being accessed and read, the Dean continues to assert his abstract “ownership” of, and (unexercised) right to access this material. Under faculty cross-questioning, at no point did he moderate or withdraw this claim. (For the record, the Dean who preceded Dean Fiedler actually claimed to have read faculty emails, and openly bragged about his ability to do so as a way of intimidating faculty and discouraging faculty dissent.)

The faculty Xerox machine has been removed, and faculty have been instructed that all material to be Xeroxed must pass through the hands of a specified staff member who works directly under Assistant Dean Clark. Current policy is that faculty members must leave all material to be copied in the hands of this staff member for 72 hours, with no guarantee of confidentiality, and in fact every expectation that it will be read by him (and possibly by others with whom he is free to discuss, show, or give copies of it) during that time.

On a number of occasions, faculty members have noted instances where mail sent through the U.S. Postal Service that has been returned to the College as undeliverable for one reason or another has been opened (and presumably read) before being returned to the faculty member. When the U.S. Postal Service opens mail, it is legally required to attach a notice explaining why the item was opened; no such notice has been present on opened College mail.

Open-ended, undefined, ad hoc definitions

It is important to note that what is or is not “appropriate” or “College business” in terms of the use of the printer, the Xerox machine, the telephone, and the mail are undefined, shifting concepts, determined entirely by Dean Fiedler’s and Ms. Clark’s ad hoc personal judgments on a given day. This opens the way to selective enforcement and other abuse. I will have more to say about the effect of invoking undefined and unexplained concepts to monitor and punish faculty members’ expressions at a later point.

Illustrative Examples

If I had printed the memo you are now reading on a printer in the College of Communication, the College administration and selected staff members (including the IT staff) would, in theory, have been able to have knowledge of its creation, subject, and length, even before my Faculty Council representative received it. If I had written a memo to President Robert Brown describing other unethical and unprofessional practices in the College and printed it on a College printer, the Dean, Assistant Dean, and other individuals in the computer support staff would similarly assert their right to know the subject and intended recipient.

If I made a series of telephone calls to the University Ombuds Officer or to one of the University Vice Presidents or Trustees to report concerns I have about a long-standing history of serious ethical violations connected with the “rigging” of the faculty review and promotion process in the College of Communication, the Dean and Assistant Dean (and other staff members) could have knowledge of the calls—either by looking up the name of the person I called, or (as Assistant Dean Clark freely admits she has done in the past) by taking it upon themselves to call the numbers I dialed to ask the individual what we talked about, without my knowledge or consent.

If I had decided to make a Xerox copy of the memo you are reading, I would have had to leave it with a College staff member for 72 hours to have it copied. Frankly, when I came back to pick it up, I would be amazed to discover that he had not read it or shown it to Assistant Dean Clark.


These policies and attitudes raise a number of disturbing legal, ethical, institutional, and professional concerns, which range from “Big Brother” to “Father Knows Best” to “The Function of a University” issues:

Threats to privacy and confidentiality
Violations of university ethics policies

President Brown has placed enormous emphasis during his tenure on “being respectful of the rights of others,” “protecting the privacy of confidential information,” and “not taking advantage of another person.” (These phrases are quoted from the “Boston University Code of Ethical Conduct.”) The Code also talks about the absolute requirement that administrators “maintain the confidentiality of confidential information entrusted to them.” Similarly, the Office of Information Technology has put in place an elaborate series of procedures to guard the confidentiality of faculty information stored on university computers. Both sets of policies are being violated by College of Communication administrators and staff members. For College of Communication staff and administrators to routinely (or as Ms. Clark puts it, to “randomly”) access and obtain information about what is being printed by faculty members, to monitor the content of faculty telephone conversations, etc. is to violate the intended protections of both the “Code of Ethical Conduct” and the Information Technology password-protection system.

Lack of oversight, control, and faculty input
Unilateral administrative decision-making and punishment

The power of administrators, unilaterally and without oversight or faculty input, to decide what is or is not an “appropriate and proper” use of university equipment, and, again unilaterally and without oversight or input, to decide what punishment, fine, reimbursement, dressing-down, or criticism will be doled out for “inappropriate” use of College equipment puts all of the power on one side of the institutional equation and denies faculty members any countervailing input into or appeal against the administrator’s decision. The fact that a faculty member charged with misconduct by a senior administrator will almost always be too embarrassed or intimidated to object to the punitive actions or reprimands inflicted on him or her, and will not want to risk making them public by disputing them, only exacerbates the potential abuse of power.

To put it most simply, senior College administrators—individuals who do not teach, research, and publish—have empowered themselves to decide, unilaterally and without appeal, what or who the teachers, researchers, and writers on the faculty should or should not be Xeroxing, printing, calling on the telephone, or posting on the internet (more about this last item near the end of this document). In a memo sent to the faculty on February 23, 2011, Dean Fiedler (who is neither a teacher, a researcher, nor a scholar) scolded faculty members for printing out “multiple copies of course syllabi” for hard-copy distribution to their students (a direct quote from the memo: “Course syllabi are not to be printed or photocopied for students”); criticized the use of college equipment for printing out scholarly research material, noting sarcastically that “some folks have printed copies of other people’s books on COM printers (i.e., not their own manuscripts);” and chided faculty members for printing “multiple copies (15-75 copies) of materials for class” (i.e. class handouts). All of the above were said to be illegitimate and improper uses of college printers. In response to a question about this memo during the March 2011 faculty meeting, Dean Fiedler amplified by stating that course syllabi and hand-outs should never be printed or Xeroxed on College equipment. All such uses of the equipment were improper, according to the Dean and Assistant Dean, since this material should be posted on-line, and only on-line.

It seems obvious to me that the best people to decide whether printing course materials (syllabi, hand-outs, readings, etc.), or copies of research materials (articles, essays, book chapters, etc.) is an appropriate use of college equipment are the individual teachers and researchers, not the non-teaching, non-publishing administrators over them. (For lack of space to go into it, I am passing over a whole other area of great concern. These categorical administrative dictates and the meddling by administrators in the specific content and conduct of individual courses raise important questions about violations of academic freedom. For an administrator to tell a teacher what he or she can or cannot hand out in the classroom dictates how courses must be conducted and has the potential to change the basic nature of the course.)

Highly selective and biased enforcement and punishment

The problem with letting administrators make judgments about what is or is not “appropriate” use of College equipment is not only that it arrogates to a non-teaching, non-publishing, non-researching administrator judgments that are properly made by the teachers, researchers, and writers directly affected by the administrative policies; the additional problem is that vague, undefined, unexplained, and unexamined concepts—like what is or is not “proper and appropriate” use of equipment and what is or is not “University business”—invite highly arbitrary, capricious, and selective enforcement. Since the definitions of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” are set by, and exist only in the minds of, a small number of senior administrators, the policies and punishments are able to be selectively applied and enforced on a completely ad hoc and ad hominem basis. The use of College equipment by “favored” faculty members is indulged and supported (since their work is judged by the administrator to be an important source of PR, support is automatically justified), while the use of equipment by “disfavored” faculty members (i.e., faculty members engaged in less glamorous and less headline-grabbing scholarship and teaching duties) can be prohibited, or the faculty member can be penalized financially or bureaucratically for the use of it. This is a special problem in the College of Communication, where many faculty members continue to hold second jobs as highly-paid, high-profile, media consultants or are engaged in big-budget commercial projects that garner the attention and respect of non-scholarly administrators, while a smaller number of devoted scholars and teachers on the faculty are engaged in lower-profile, less remunerative, and less newsworthy projects. The result can be—and frequently is—not only a radical distortion of whose work is and is not regarded as being justified as being “University business,” but an utterly capricious, arbitrary, and unexamined application of the concept of what is or is not “appropriate” and worthy of support. In short, we are back in the world of the “old BU,” where senior administrators were given carte blanche to play “faculty favorites” and to help out those faculty members they perceive to be their “friends” and “buddies,” even while they penalize faculty members whom they feel to be too “independent” or whom they regard as outright “enemies.” Do we really want to return to the days when administrators unilaterally and arbitrarily decided who got the perks and who got the punishments?

To give a practical example of the arbitrariness that an ad hoc and ad hominem administrative definition of what does or does not merit University support invites: On the one hand, the Chairman of the Department of Film and Television—who continues to collect a large outside salary as a producer of commercial, made-for-cable-television movies—is allowed to use his office, office telephone, budget, and secretarial staff to transact a large part of his (non-scholarly, non-university-related, non-teaching, for-profit) film production business because support for such high-profile activity is judged to be “appropriate;” while a faculty member in the same department at the same time (me, in this case), who is a “mere” scholar and teacher is told that he is forbidden to use the College Xerox machine to prepare a course packet—not because of copyright restrictions, but because the project involves copying more than a hundred pages of material to distribute to students at the beginning of the semester. He (me) is told that the use of the College Xerox machine to prepare such a packet is an “inappropriate” use of University equipment and resources. The department Chairman is allowed to bill thousands of dollars in long-distance telephone calls to the university (not to mention the staff support costs his use of the secretarial staff to conduct his commercial work incurs), year in and year out, while I am forced to go down the street to a commercial copy center and pay hundreds of dollars out of my own pocket (which I in fact did) to create a packet to support my teaching.

Discouraging the free and open exchange
of ideas, opinions, and information

However, I would argue that the most important consequences of this situation are not financial but institutional. These policies erode the fundamental relationship of trust and professional respect that is supposed to exist between administrators and faculty. Faculty feel like they are being treated like children and learn to sneak around, or hide their activities, to keep “Mommy and Daddy” (faculty nicknames for the Dean and Assistant Dean, respectively) from finding out what they are Xeroxing, printing, or saying on the telephone. They strike back-rooms “deals” with the staff member who does the Xeroxing not to show what they are giving him to anyone else. They deceptively re-title their documents to conceal their true subject matter when they send them to the print queue. Etc. Etc. And even as they do these things and tell each other about them, they watch who they talk to, what they say, and who is standing behind them in line, out of fear that word of what they are saying and doing might get back to the Dean or Assistant Dean.

The effect is deeply antithetical to the mission and function of a university. These policies chill and discourage the free and open exchange of ideas that a university is presumably devoted to. When administrators place themselves in a position to spy on, monitor, control, prevent, or financially punish the expression of specific ideas, opinions, and information, the life-blood of a university is throttled. If these policies do not absolutely prevent certain kinds of faculty expression (do you really want to argue with an administrator who is in charge of deciding whether your work is or is not “appropriate?”), they at the very least dampen and discourage free and open faculty communication (do you really want to make that telephone call or write that memo when an administrator might be made aware you did it?). Many College of Communication faculty have already stopped using their BU email accounts for the expression of ideas or feelings that might “get them into trouble.” They have stopped using their office telephones for conversations with colleagues. They have stopped using their BU printing account to print out documents that might be objected to by administrators. At Boston University, one would associate these states of fear and intimidation with previous administrations; but I am writing about here and now. Is this the kind of atmosphere that we want to continue in the so-called new BU?

Putting Current Efforts to Monitor and Control
Faculty Expression in Context

There is a background to the administrative attempts to monitor and control faculty expression and to punish or criticize faculty for “inappropriate” activity that the preceding events fit into, and that colors the faculty’s understanding of the administration’s current policies in the College of Communication. The current monitoring of faculty communication takes its place as just one more chapter in a long history of attempts to control and limit faculty expression in the College. I  have already mentioned a previous Dean’s brags that he knew what faculty were writing in their emails about him in order to try to intimidate them and limit what they wrote. There are many other similar instances of College administrators attempting to control faculty expression, but I’ll limit myself to one more example, this time from three years ago: In 2008, a full-time, tenured faculty member in the College of Communication (me!) was ordered by a senior College administrator to remove all of his scholarly writing from the university server (i.e., to take down his entire faculty web site) because the administrator had read a page or two and told the faculty member he disagreed with specific statements that he had made about pedagogy and the function of a university. As if the ire of the administrator and the demand that the material be removed was not punishment enough, a formal motion of censure—censuring the faculty member for what he had published about pedagogy—was subsequently passed at the insistence of the administrator, and the faculty member was also informed that his work and ideas would be publicly attacked on the official College of Communication web site if he did not submit to the censorship (or suppression) of his work. As a final series of punishments, when the faculty member stood his ground and refused to take down his faculty web site, his annual evaluations and pay were docked under the grounds that he was being difficult and “uncollegial.” The financial and administrative punishment of this faculty member unfortunately continues to this day.

This is the context within which the current policies of monitoring and control must be understood. These actions and other similar ones have already had a strongly negative effect on the free play of ideas among faculty members in the College of Communication—so much so that many faculty have told me that they were afraid to speak up about the current issue at the March 2011 faculty meeting. (In the days following that meeting I received a number of emails from faculty members saying that they agreed with things I said at the meeting but were reluctant to say so in front of the Dean and Assistant Dean for fear that their statements might negatively impact their pay or perquisites, and, in a series of private, personal conversations, was thanked for speaking up by an even larger number of faculty members who said that they didn’t trust that using email to relay their sentiments to me would be a safe way to communicate.) Faculty have not been slow to learn the lesson of past events—not only, as the events in the previous paragraph illustrate, that they should be very careful about what they post on their faculty web sites—but that they should never question an administrator’s verdicts about what is “appropriate” or “inappropriate” faculty expression. The administrator is always right (by definition, since there is no faculty input into, oversight over, or appeal of the administrator’s decision). The faculty member had better be extremely careful about what he or she says or publishes, and whom he or she makes it known to. The culture of fear, intimidation, and the narrowing of discourse has already succeeded in chilling expression—unfortunately, not for the first time at BU.

Postscript: For the benefit of any College of Communication administrator who may be reading this: This memo was written on my own time and printed and proofed on my home computer. It is a sad state of affairs that I feel that I have to add this disclaimer.

April 9, 2011

Prof. Ray Carney
Dept. of Film and Television
College of Communication
Boston University

I'd emphasize that the preceding concerns are not theoretical. To read my response to a specific instance in which College of Communication Dean Thomas Fiedler not only monitored my email communication with my students, without my knowledge or permission, but attempted to control what I wrote to them with accusations and threats and subsequent negative impacts on my pay and evaluations, see the section of the site titled “How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students—or Suggest That They Read at Boston University." --R.C.