The following originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.
Last weekend, I had the privilege of returning to my alma mater for the inauguration of Elizabeth H. Bradley, the 11th president of Vassar College. Returning to Vassar as the president of Transylvania University felt different from my arrival as a student in 1984.
I was raised in the Bronx by Irish Catholic immigrants. Our Catholicism was quiet, expressed mostly by giving neighbors a hand, weekly Mass and private guilt. We had little time to follow the political issues of the day, and the internet did not yet exist.
During my years at Vassar, however, there was no hiding from political issues. Well-informed, passionate students conversed about apartheid outside classes and staged demonstrations near the dining hall. Students engaged intensely with one another and professors. Courses forced us to seek out quiet spaces in the library where we struggled to master content that was opening us to new perspectives on the world.
At Transylvania, I regularly see students undergoing the same transformations. True to the liberal arts experience, our campus is a sacred space of learning, inquiry and student development. We are guided by the search for knowledge and truth. Students and faculty members work together in small classes combing carefully through texts, conducting research projects and conversing about life after college. These experiences bring a satisfaction that is distinct to college campuses. A quick glance at the accomplishments of Transylvania graduates indicates that our work is done well.
Recently, the sacredness of our campus was disrupted by a social media firestorm. This invasion came as a response to an online posting. One of our students who is part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivalsprogram had her personal information posted on a white supremacist Facebook page by another student. As a result of that, our DACA student received abusive messages online. The university immediately mobilized to protect and support our students, in particular the DACA student — a young woman who has been in the country since she was 2 years old and has distinguished herself as a college student. At the same time, we initiated a judicial process that provided due process for everyone involved. While we followed this process, misinformation and impatience led to indignant messages filling our inboxes.
Our university has been chastened by this experience. We are reviewing our policies to make sure we are doing everything possible to minimize the fallout from such occurrences. We are well on the way to recovering the civil and collaborative learning environment that we are used to. But I am concerned about what it reveals about our country. Institutions like ours are governed by laws and procedures that protect individuals in our community, especially students. Privacy is sacrosanct. We do not reveal information about our students to the public.
In contrast, the digital empires of Facebook and Google are mining personal data and transforming it into a commodity. The commodification of this data enables those empires to amass immense influence and wealth while full access to data allows people to threaten, harass and abuse. Like any industrial empire, the measure of success for these digital empires is wealth and power. The difference between the digital industry and just about any other industry, however, is that there are virtually no regulations on how their commodity — data — is used.
Codes and regulations restrain the behavior of other industries to protect citizens and the world. The absence of codes and regulations in the digital world too often leads users of social media to act on their worst instincts. Rhetoric becomes unhinged from reality. That separation is a threat to our democracy and the institutions that are essential to it. On these platforms, facts go unchecked, nuance is lost and not searched for, emotion overrides reason, accusations replace dialogue, and premature judgment negates understanding. All this is fodder for media operatives who use the algorithms of Facebook and Google to manipulate data and control what we read and discuss.
In the aftermath of the social media firestorm that hit our campus, I received advice from a contingent of faculty. One recommendation read, “Approach violations with an eye toward stopping the behavior, preventing its recurrence and remedying the known impacts.” But as college administrators, our influence over the way people use social media is extremely limited.
The same is not true of Mark Zuckerberg, however. A new law taking effect this week in Germany, the Network Enforcement Law, will hold social media companies like Facebook accountable for removing and preventing hate speech. If they violate the law, they will be liable for fines up to $56 million. That has prompted Facebook to begin hiring thousands of screeners to review content that is being posted on their pages.
We should consider similar legislation in the United States. Given the pace at which the U.S. Congress works, however, Zuckerberg and his colleagues have an obligation to monitor content before legislation requires them to do so. It is not enough for Zuckerberg to say he is in the business of connecting people when communities like Transylvania can be torn apart by users of his platforms. Facebook has ample resources to put protective measures in place to remove hate speech and doesn’t need to wait.
In the meantime, it is more important than ever for institutions of higher learning to recommit to the ideals of liberal learning. We must provide the context that enables students to evaluate and resist derogatory language, even if it is given license by our president. We must provide the context for them to see through the illusion that all information or data is equal. We must provide the context to know the human condition with depth through the study of a broad curriculum of history and art, science and philosophy, economics and psychology, business and politics. This context is shaped by the search for truth and welcomes nuance. It expands dialogue and suspends judgment in the pursuit of understanding. It welcomes the differences of others.
Education is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor. At its core, it is fueled by the joy of discovery, understanding and self-transcendence. It is fueled by the belief in its power to transform lives. It is fueled by the excitement of exploration. It is a sacred endeavor that is best done collaboratively in accordance with norms and rules and cultivates the best in human beings. Today, it faces unprecedented challenges in the lawlessness that pervades the digital world.
At Transylvania, we are developing a robust program to study the uses of digital media so that our students will have the skills required to excel in the digital economy. We are also creating physical spaces on the campus that will foster community and collaboration.
Yet while all this is essential, it will not accomplish what we are after unless we also find and create quiet spaces to reflect on the meaning of the information and data that bombard us every day. In these quiet spaces, the sacredness of our campus and learning are nourished. That is what drew me back to a familiar desk in the stacks of the library last weekend when I returned to my alma mater. The smell of old books filled the silent air, and the troublesome elements of the world were put in their place for a couple of hours.