Dartmouth College Plans to Overhaul Its Computer Use Policy

  • The east side of campus and College Park is seen from the Baker Tower on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Phil Hanlon, the college's president, is considering an expansion of the school's undergraduate population. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2018

Hanover — After a national First Amendment watchdog organization singled Dartmouth College out for a computer use policy it says is too restrictive, a top-level college administrator has announced his plans to unveil a new and improved policy next month.

“They’re right about that,” said Mitchel Davis, who became Dartmouth’s vice president and chief information officer a little more than a year ago. “We’ll be changing that language.”

Two weeks ago, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, announced that it had given a “green light” rating to Keene State College, leaving Dartmouth as the only “red light” college among the four New Hampshire institutions that the watchdog group tracks.

The policy that drew FIRE’s ire is Dartmouth’s current “acceptable use” policy for its computer system. In order to use Dartmouth’s information technology resources, a person must first agree not to “Post or transmit content that is harmful, offensive, obscene, abusive, invasive of privacy, defamatory, hateful or otherwise discriminatory, false and misleading, incites an illegal act, or is otherwise in breach of your obligations to any person or contrary to any applicable laws and regulations.”

Laura Beltz, a policy reform program officer at Philadelphia-based FIRE, said that two of those words — offensive and hateful — were the most problematic, because they are open to broad interpretation.

“They can mean just about anything, and can include just about everything because they’re totally subjective,” Beltz said.

Beltz said the goal of such policies often is to protect students from harassment or threats, but that it’s better to achieve that by prohibiting “unlawful” materials.

“Just a tweak is all that’s needed,” she said. “Racial slurs can be used as part of threats. As part of harassment. But isolated from any of those contexts, they are protected by the First Amendment.”

Davis said he agrees with FIRE’s fundamental position — that the preferred remedy to offensive ideas is to confront them with better ideas.

“That’s a conversation that Dartmouth needs to have and keep open,” said Davis, who also has played a similar administrative role at Bowdoin College and at Stanford University. “There are people who feel threatened by microaggressions, but you have to approach that in a thoughtful and academic way and guide the discussion. ... Hateful speech is going to happen in society and the definition of hateful changes depending on what’s going on.”

And when Dartmouth’s IT systems are the medium of communication, Davis said, the context will drive an appropriate response.

“Let’s say it’s stalking, it’s abusive language. You can get involved and find out who those people are, and if they’re younger, you can have a conversation with them. If it’s some crazy older person sitting on a hillside, you need to get the FBI involved,” he said.

Dartmouth has shown a willingness to consider changes to the way it walks the line between freedom of expression and addressing offensive materials — later this month, administrators are expected to announce the fate of the Hovey murals, an installation in the locked basement of the former Thayer Dining Hall that has an artistic pedigree, but that includes stereotypical and offensive portrayals of both women and Native Americans.

Davis said that he’s been reviewing the language of Dartmouth’s IT policies for several months, and that the change will be much broader than updating the acceptable use policy. He said it also will respond to increasing national concerns, particularly among young people, about privacy and data access.

“If you’re not willing to look at the language you use, and how it changes over time, then you’re really not looking forward for your company,” he said. “It was standard, cookie-cutter language and it just got left for so long that it just got old.”

Davis said the changes, which are undergoing an internal administrative review and a legal review before implementation, will do a better and more transparent job of giving students control over their own data, and protecting them from bad actors.

“The value for us is, I’m going to stop getting those phone calls from people who get their data accessed and want to know how it happens,” he said.

Privacy and control over personal data have been at the center of a series of scandals over the past several years, including vast data breaches in which millions of retail or banking accounts have been compromised, revelations about how Cambridge Analytica accessed information on 87 million Facebook users, and a recent report by Fordham University spotlighting a vast commercial marketplace for listings of college students.

In New Hampshire, Keene State College, Plymouth State University and the University of New Hampshire all have ratings of green; in Vermont, Lyndon State College and Middlebury College have red ratings, while the University of Vermont has a yellow rating. Bennington College is not yet rated.

Nationally, fewer than 10 percent of schools earn a “green light” from FIRE. About 59 percent are categorized as “yellow light,” and 32 percent are “red light.”

Beltz said the national trend has been toward more protection of free speech.

“In our 2009 report, something like 75 percent of schools were getting red light ratings,” she said.

Beltz said that though the administrative-generated policy codes are showing more tolerance, anecdotally, it seems to her that there is less tolerance among the students themselves, as is evidenced by a growing number of cases in which controversial speakers are disinvited from speaking at a campus.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.