National Awareness of a Local Issue

Many people view the Internet as a “disruptive technology.” For many people, that carries a negative connotation. Let’s take a brief look at one current example of this phenomenon.

The issue of privacy for students who live in on-campus residence halls is a familiar issue to most campus administrators. It’s a topic that nearly all student affairs administrators examine though their education and professional development as it makes for a great discussion of both a familiar ethical concept and unfamiliar case law. Another familiar issue that of students who are unhappy with their perceived lack of privacy in the residence halls, particularly when that perceived lack of privacy includes campus law enforcement personnel and their ability (or lack thereof) to patrol residence halls, make arrests, enter students rooms, etc.

Students at UMass at Amherst are unhappy about this issue. Instead of focusing on the legalities of this issue or how the campus is handling it, let’s focus briefly on how these events in Massachusetts are being reported to, noticed by, and discussed by folks from around the country almost in real-time.

This first came to my attention when someone on a discussion forum posted a link to Tuesday’s Boston Globe article. Within minutes, members of that forum read the article and began discussing it (later, updates to the discussion thread included posts from students on the campus and involved in the protests). Similarly, InsideHigherEd’s article from today has also been seen by many people far removed from this one campus, some of whom have left comments or engaged in discussion about the article at the bottom of the InsideHigherEd webpage. It’s to be expected that many who publicly participate in those discussions have very strong opinions but that, too, is not the topic of this discussion (but what a topic it would be!).

The point is that people who have never seen or read a physical copy of the Boston Globe and could not pick our Massachusetts on a map have heard about this incident. I don’t know what impression this incident has left on those people (Rowdy college students hold silly protest? Campus police invade privacy?) but that they have any impression at all of an event that is now occurring on a campus they’ve never visited involving students and administrators they’ve never met is quite remarkable. Without going to Friedman-like extremes and asserting that the world is flat, we can certainly conclude that we’re interconnected in unexpected and often-uncontrollable ways.

And don’t ever think that this is just an issue for your campus public relations or communications department! This specific incident involved policies set by campus police with significant input from housing and student affairs. Other incidents that have gained nationwide attention have focused specifically on other rules, policies, and related actions or reactions by student affairs staff. Just ask the Housing and Residence Life staff at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire or the deans of students involved in the affirmative action brownie sales. Will actions taken by or policies set by you or your staff be the next caught on a cell phone camera, uploaded to YouTube, written about in hundreds of blogs and discussion forums, and discussed by people around the world?

Update: Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, said that “there is no more local” in a recent speech discussing the transformation of the media industry and how people get their news. It’s not higher ed-specific but it is a speech well worth reading for those interested in those topics.