Recently, Department of Public Safety officers serving the University have been working with the Joint Terrorism Task Forces in an effort to monitor possible terrorist activity on campus. This collaboration is part of a larger effort in which the FBI works with collegiate police officers on a dozen different college campuses. With the FBI monitoring the University and its students so closely, the question of how much privacy and security the community enjoys is a legitimate concern.
Prior to the passage of the USA-Patriot Act in October 2001, the FBI was subject to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. This act ensured that academic institutions were unable to release academic records without student permission, unless the school was mandated by court order or subpoena.
However, the Patriot Act, instituted in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has nullified the previous privacy protections and strengthened executive power in areas of surveillance. The FBI has stated that no monitoring or action will be taken against any student unless a credible tip has been offered to the authorities about the subject. However, government agencies are now free to follow certain groups of students if they so choose.
International students have reason to be exceptionally wary. Without the protection of U.S. citizenship, the status of international students’ civil liberties are already murky. Also, because these students are not citizens of this country, federal agencies are likely to focus on their activities within U.S. borders.
The University itself has special reason to be concerned about this alliance between the Joint Terrorism Task Force and DPS. A majority of graduate students at the University are international students. This is true especially for engineering and science programs. The possible and probable monitoring of some foreigners among this campus will deter graduate students from selecting the University for post-graduate study. The University relies on foreign students for its high rankings and research achievements, and any practice that discourages foreign enrollment should be discouraged.
In addition, the FBI’s indirect presence at the University will breed an environment of mistrust and skepticism. Terrorist activity on campus is unlikely, and efforts by the Joint Terrorism Task Force will not only violate civil liberties, but will also unnecessarily cause students to question each other and discourage any activism that could be regarded as anti-American.
The ability of the FBI to monitor and access confidential student records undermines the democratic ideals that we seek to spread throughout the world. One of the strengths of American universities is that they can serve as a site of dialogue between the United States and the rest of the world. International students who become personally acquainted with the nuances of democracy during their college years often become the country’s greatest ambassadors. If the federal government hopes to maintain this advantage, it must not make universities unwelcoming and suspicious environments for foreign students.