ACTA in the News | Political Correctness

Stanford University’s Pernicious Snitching Apparatus

The prestigious institution has a campus-wide system for reporting ‘bias,’ one that is extremely susceptible to abuse.
NATIONAL REVIEW   |  February 24, 2023 by Steven McGuire

Stanford University’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) debacle showed that Stanford bureaucrats, like their Orwellian prototypes, are eager to make a Newspeak dictionary with ever-fewer approved words. But they are doing something even more sinister: using software to track the behavior of campus community members and encourage them to report one another for alleged bias incidents. It is time to ask just how close elite American universities will come to the tactics of, say, the People’s Republic of China.

The EHLI already included a plan to provide “financial rewards for finding/reporting” the use of such language. At a recent faculty senate meeting, Juan Santiago drew attention to another bureaucratic invention at Stanford, the Protected Identity Harm (PIH) Reporting system. It allows anyone to report anonymously any incident that “adversely and unfairly targets an individual or group on the basis of one or more . . . actual or perceived characteristics,” including “race,” “sex,” “disability,” “gender identity or expression,” and other categories. The website says the process exists to address “situations involving real or perceived incidents” and even encourages students to report incidents that “may involve constitutionally protected speech.”

Stanford claims that the PIH is “not a judicial or investigative process,” but don’t count on it. Maybe the alleged offender is merely pressured into “a path to resolution,” which can include, among other options, “mediated conversation,” “indigenous circle practices,” or an “outdoor/nature based healing experience.” A complaint could also lead to an investigation, since “a matter involving conduct that rises to the level of a hate crime or unlawful discrimination or harassment may be referred to law enforcement or another appropriate process on campus.” It is difficult to believe that any student (or faculty member) notified of a complaint through this system would not feel that he or she is being investigated.

In private communications, several Stanford faculty members expressed concerns about the impact of the PIH on teaching and learning at the university. Stephen Haber, who has won multiple teaching awards, said the fundamental problem is that it “erodes trust” when “universities function on the basis of trust.” Faculty and students must be free to experiment with new ideas, he explained, but the rational response to a system such as the PIH is to avoid saying anything that someone might report.

Iván Marinovic agreed that the PIH “creates a chilling effect in the classroom where people feel permanently observed and morally judged.” He added that the reporting system “promotes the lowest tendencies of human beings” because it “provides a low-cost tool for cowardly and resentful people to attack their (ideological) opponents’ reputation behind their backs.”

Adding to the looming threat of the PIH, Santiago also noted in his presentation that it relies on an external vendor, “who collects the information.” A quick look at the PIH form reveals that the reporting system uses student-conduct software produced by Maxient, which, according to the company’s website, is used by over 1,300 colleges and universities, including the University of Florida, MIT, and Ohio State University, to give just a few examples.

Blending beneficence and discipline like the World State in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Maxient’s website tells prospective users that its “Conduct Manager has you covered for all things related to a student’s conduct and well-being.” It can be used to store and track all sorts of student information, including some that is useful and benign, but also some — such as anonymous bias complaints filed through reporting systems like Stanford’s PIH — that can create a sense of fear and mutual suspicion on campus that undermines the free exchange of ideas.

There are clearly privacy and security issues that arise from using third-party software to collect and store sensitive data (Maxient was hacked by a competitor several years ago). Worse than that, however, is that the software is designed to help bureaucrats monitor and discipline students for conduct violations in a system that favors complainants over respondents.

As Marybeth Sydor, a Title IX and Higher Education consultant with Nesenoff and Miltenberg, observed, several elements of the reporting form are prejudiced against respondents. The very fact that “Stanford specifically named their Maxient reporting ‘Protected Identity’ and not ‘Anonymous,’ as other schools do” is an indication of this. She also noted that “the Stanford form repeatedly uses the word ‘targeted’ to describe the alleged behavior, indicating a prejudicial presumption of intent by the accused.”

Most students are probably not even aware that their schools are using Maxient or other software to keep detailed files on them that can include notes on their behavior. When they do become aware, it is unclear how much of the information in their files they can access. Sydor said that “schools rarely provide Maxient reports to accused students,” and added that “most schools allow students to ‘view’ their educational files but not necessarily receive a hard copy of the entire file.”

An anonymous source familiar with the use of Maxient at Stanford and elsewhere reports witnessing at another institution “a situation when the Title IX disciplinary person started to refer to past reports,” and when the student asked to see them, he “was told that information is confidential and he is not allowed to see it.” Asked about this, attorney Raul Jauregui, who works on Title IX cases, said, “Definitely this has happened to me during conversations with Title IX investigators and directors.”

Student-conduct officers can use the files, including complaints students do not even know about, as well as ones for which they are found not responsible, to establish patterns of behavior that can be used against them. Sydor noted that, “Stanford also states on the form that ‘This process was set-up to collect data’ which we know can be misinterpreted to create a pattern.” The anonymous source reported that, “If a student is accused of anything, the records are typically pulled up and then used in initial meetings with the student, in assembling a case for discipline and prosecution including Title IX but other disciplinary matters as well, and may often then even be brought to the hearing officers or hearing panels for the prosecutors to show this is a pattern and practice by the accused student.” Jauregui explained that student-conduct officers will do this to discourage respondents from defending themselves: “They try to discreetly mention that there is a pattern so you better just give up now before a hearing.”

The information collected might also be reviewed when students apply for housing, resident-assistant positions, or other perks or jobs at their university, the anonymous source also suggested. Asked if he had ever seen something like this, Jauregui responded, “Yes. All the time. I’ve seen it go as far as the TIX office forcing students to resign from jobs that are at employers not owned by but certainly doing business with the school.”

Student-conduct investigations often fail to meet reasonable standards of due process. The anonymous source gave another example of how the way the software is used can prejudice this issue. This person had experiences in which “correspondence from the Title IX office and the relevant deputy dean was always being copied to Maxient, but when the student and his lawyer asked that their material also go to Maxient, they were told that only university people can make entries.” As a result, “accusatory information, whether correct or false, makes it into a student’s files but the exculpatory information often does not.”

Jauregui backed this up as well. Asked if it has happened to him, he again responded, “Yes. All the time. Either denied or they sort of forget for some reason to add it.” He went on to recount a case in which he found a “massive flaw in the complaint” and told the Title IX office about it. “Yet all the record of that, which we provided, has for some reason been left out of the report. We can respond to the report and add it, but still. . . .”

Maxient’s software, which is made by bureaucrats for bureaucrats, is designed to serve the interests of the administrators who use it. “Under investigation?” the website asks. “Let us help you compile data. Our team works tirelessly to make you look good and your processes run smoothly.” It is not speaking to the students who will find themselves subjected to unfair investigations for issues ranging from Title IX violations to saying the wrong thing on the quad.

Maxient can also be used to produce reports on the incidents it tracks. Stanford notes that “a record of PIH reports will be maintained and analyzed by the Office of Inclusion, Community and Integrative Learning” and that “data will be carefully evaluated to provide a deeper understanding of the campus climate regarding diversity, intolerance and free expression, so that appropriate educational tools for students, faculty and staff can be created.”

But there is another possible use for these data. As the anonymous source observed, “There’s a direct or indirect incentive to increase the number of concerns and/or complaints on file: It helps justify current budgets and proposed increases in budgets, and it helps the schools tell the media, advocates and others that the school is being very diligent with alleged sexual assaults, etc.” Jauregui observed that, “The biggest exacerbator of unfairness in student conduct management is the very clear career advantage that a strong student conduct record provides the employee who otherwise has no reason to be promoted. Maxient just makes it easier for them to maintain and memorialize their goals.” In short, bureaucrats can use this software to justify and expand their roles while encouraging behavior that damages the main activities of the university.

Russell Berman, who also expressed concern about the “solicitation of anonymous denunciation” via the PIH, raised the issue of bureaucratic rule at Stanford in the same recent faculty senate meeting at which Juan Santiago presented. Berman said that the creators of the EHLI (none of whom were faculty members) have “no appreciation for academic values” and argued that restoring academic freedom at Stanford depends on “asserting faculty oversight in a university run solely by administrators.”

Students are also concerned about bureaucratic rule at Stanford. Julia Steinberg, a Stanford sophomore, does not believe that most Stanford attendees know about the PIH, and even fewer are invested in using it. But, in a recent article about two students who were reported for posting a photograph of one of them reading Mein Kampf, she said that the incident “reveals how fast the Stanford community will jump on the censorship train in the name of fighting oppression.” She explained that among students there is a “general mood of lack of faith in the administration.” Mentioning the “war on social life” as another example, she agreed that there is a problem of “over-bureaucratization of the university.”

If the faculty and students at Stanford want to restore campus freedom, they will have to fight against an army of bureaucrats who not only do not understand or care about the principles of the academic enterprise but also have entrenched interests that work against it. Perhaps a few others will come forward to help expose the corruption. They could start by asking to see their files.

This was posted on National Review on February, 24 2023.


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