World Politics

Welcome to the surveillance campus

ISR Issue 82 • March-April 2012


Welcome to the surveillance campus


We are living in the State of Exception. We don’t know when it will end, as we don’t know when the War on Terror will end. But we all know when it began. We can no longer quite “remember” that moment, for the images have long since been refitted into a present-day fable of innocence and apocalypse. . . . [T]hose terrible moments stand as a brightly lit portal through which we were all compelled to step, together, into a different world. Since that day ten years ago, we have lived in a subtly different country. . .—Mark Danner1




IN THE wake of the September 11 attacks and the passage of the Patriot Act, many of us expressed concern that specific civil rights violations or infringements could impact members of campus communities. We also worried that widespread forms of surveillance could have a broader impact on campus culture. The potential impact of state monitoring of library usage, for example, could chill the climate for academic freedom and for the ability of campus communities to set their own standards for open access to information through the shared governance process. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published a substantial report, “Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis” in 2003 that detailed a number of specific and ongoing concerns, among them our grave objection to a provision that employees served with a search warrant covering information access by others could have a gag order imposed.2


More broadly, we offered warnings about the consequences of entangling information gathering with law enforcement, an interconnection that now seems fully embedded in American life, in part because the FBI was retasked to focus on gathering intelligence. Among the most visible consequences of the September 11 aftermath were the repeated Bush administration decisions to bar foreign scholars from entering the United States and visiting US campuses. Tariq Ramadan and Adam Habib were among the more widely publicized cases. When administration explanations could be compelled, they were both flimsy and unwarranted. Ramadan, for example, had donated to a group that had only later been placed on the terrorist watch list. The AAUP, the ACLU, and other groups repeatedly fought these ideological exclusions and eventually won reversals under the Obama administration. But the Clinton State Department is still delaying visa applications for ideological reasons. The AAUP and the ACLU signed a Fall 2010 protest letter on behalf of Kerim Yildiz, a British national who is executive director of the Kurdish Human Rights Project and who had been waiting for a visa for a year. And the Obama administration has pursued comparable arguments in another domain, defending the conviction of members of the Muslim Holy Land Foundation for donating to charities the government had not listed as affiliated with Hamas. Moreover, all the donations were used for humanitarian purposes. In a move that strikes against the very rule of law, the administration’s solicitor general Elena Kagan, now an associate justice of the Supreme Court, argued in 2010 that the laws against providing material support for a terrorist group would prohibit lawyers from filing an amicus brief on the group’s behalf. It seems highly unlikely that the principle of open access for foreign scholars would survive the election of another more conservative president.


While vigilance and protest have protected many of our civil rights, others have been compromised, and an atmosphere persists in which nothing is guaranteed, and in which further ground could be lost at any time. A small number of faculty members have in fact been targeted by the national security apparatus and had their lives substantially altered as a result, sometimes irreversibly. Sami Al-Arian of the University of South Florida, who languished in solitary confinement for years, is the single most terrifying case, but he is not alone in having his rights compromised and his life derailed. Others are simply drawn into enhanced scrutiny which compromises their security in other ways, among them warrantless searches of computer files belonging to Americans returning from abroad. Meanwhile, ferocious objections to planned speeches by politically controversial American faculty members have been given additional warrant by the post-9/11 culture. It was also much easier for the University of Illinois Board of trustees to deny Bill Ayers emeritus status in the post-9/11 climate. And of course tenured University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill lost his job as a result of the firestorm belatedly generated by his comments on the World Trade Center attack. How much self-censorship by academics has followed upon the cumulative impact of all these and other events we will never know. But I am not willing to claim there has likely been little or none. The dominant emotion among faculty today is fear. We cannot add to that fear without suffering consequences. We work in the context of at least intermittent national security intimidation, however vague it often seems until we visit an airport. The national security state now confronts what has increasingly become the insecure campus. But if I can be permitted a bit of what I will describe as speculative, constructive, or strategic paranoia, I would like to raise a series of still more indirect concerns. I should note parenthetically that national security is, after all, all about strategic and constructive paranoia. We cannot prove that any air traveler plans to transport a bomb in a pair of shoes, but Richard Reid did in December 2001, so hundreds of thousands of US airline passengers since then have dutifully removed their shoes in the security screening line, something they do not have to do when traveling in Europe. I do not object to the major screening procedures, but they directly and collaterally alter the psychology of air travel. If your computer or your iPhone gets ahead of you in the line, they may be stolen. A crowded screening line is a good place for a thief to capture your credit card number electronically. It may have happened to me twice. It pays to be more vigilant now. So I am asking what the collateral effects in higher education are: how much has post-9/11 ideology contributed to a broader surveillance culture on campus? What, if any, effects has the national security apparatus and its accompanying cultural presence itself had indirectly on how we think about the aims of education and our ability to evaluate our success in fulfilling them? Is it easier after 9/11 and our subsequent accommodations to surveillance and the abridgement of various personal freedoms to subject the campus to disciplines of conformity, regimentation, and supervision that masquerade as guarantees of outcomes and performance? How much of their academic freedom are faculty members willing to cede in the context of repressive agendas elsewhere in public life? To what degree has our enhanced security climate permeated other cultural domains?


Americans would like to believe they can give up freedoms in discrete areas of life without seeing compromises elsewhere. Yet nothing in past history would suggest that major changes in both the character and organization of government authority, along with the institutions that serve and exercise it, would leave the rest of the country unchanged. Indeed, everything we have learned from cultural studies suggests that different domains are relational, that meaning is comparative and interactive, that influences and impacts overrun our efforts to take comfort in compartmentalized consciousness. That is how culture works. It is about connections and contrasts. It offers separate spheres of life at best only relative autonomy. The insecurity that leads academics to cede their rights has many sources—the relentless press of budgetary debate and anxiety, an academic job market worsened by the recession, the shift to contingent positions with no job security, increasing administrative centralization, assaults on public employee pensions and on unionization, salary and benefit concessions in private industry, the growing national political power of the reactionary right, the recent history of campus concessions to corporatization, the antagonism of boards of trustees toward faculty interests and power, anti-tenure rhetoric in the press, faculty and staff exhaustion from workplace speedup and successive budget cuts, and so forth. I would not claim to be able to sort out all these forces so as to assign them relative weight. But the aftereffects of the expanded and invasive national security state helps provide the glue that holds all these forces together and empowers them. It helps to define the country in which we live. It reshapes the status and character of national citizenship. It augments our expectations about and acceptance of the supervisory authority of all bureaucracies, not just those charged with countering terrorism. We are more willing to report on our professional activities, more willing to tolerate standardized tests, more willing to have our course syllabi vetted in a world where pervasive surveillance is the norm. The post-9/11 world is not, to be sure, the only one in which the rule of law has been compromised and subverted. One cannot forget the worst periods of national madness—during the Red Scare of World War I with its wanton deportations; during World War II when American citizens of Japanese descent were hauled off to concentration camps; and during the witch hunts of the postwar McCarthy period—when our fundamental laws and constitutional rights were set aside. Black Americans and Native Americans meanwhile remain pervasively aware that justice for them bears little resemblance to what it means for wealthy Americans. The rule of law needs to be shored up constantly. The work of maintaining it never ends. Indeed the post-9/11 picture has not been unqualifiedly bleak. Some US Supreme Court decisions reversed or limited Bush administration efforts to nullify the Constitution, notably denying efforts to place “enemy combatants” beyond the reach of judicial review. In key decisions, the Geneva Conventions were ruled applicable to al-Qaeda detainees, and the claim that US citizens could be held without a hearing was rejected.3 But even the victories for the rule of law were ambiguous. Each step toward what Clinton Rossiter more than half a century ago called “constitutional dictatorship” leaves the lawless option permanently before us when it is later repudiated.4 Nonetheless, a government willing to waterboard people held for questioning in its secret prisons or deport them to other countries where they will be tortured neither merits nor receives the same trust as one that steadfastly rejects such practices. How many Americans now doubt that habeas corpus would reliably apply to themselves if they were mistakenly taken up in the national security apparatus? How many Muslim Americans remain confident of their constitutional rights? For all the chest thumping and invocations of solidarity that followed the 9/11 attacks, national citizenship in some ways now means less than it did before. For the balance of power between legality and politics, always fluid, has shifted toward the latter. And it does not help that politicians like Dick Cheney continue to assert wild claims about people’s terrorist connections that have long since been disproven.5 In specific settings, the post-9/11 security apparatus has had a direct impact on academic citizenship as well. In Weaponizing Anthropology, David Price has provided a chilling account of the ways some anthropologists in counterinsurgency teams have jettisoned the ethical codes of their discipline in surveilling and reporting on villages in Afghanistan.6 Suffice it to say that a US-trained anthropologist serving in a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan who files a report provoking action by a CIA assassination squad might well be thought to have violated American Anthropological Association prohibitions against causing harm to a group under study. Of course the covert research and secret reporting that would precede this worst-case analysis would themselves violate professional norms. To be sure, during the Cold War many faculty members eagerly collaborated with defense industries and with intelligence agencies, but both universities and numerous professional societies have since adopted more stringent standards for professional conduct and specific standards against secret research on campus. Nonetheless, some government programs have deliberately compromised standards on campuses. Named after a Republican senator from Kansas, the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP) is a decentralized federal program designed to fund graduate students in a variety of disciplines in secret. PRISP operates through the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and funds science, social science, and foreign language area graduate students in amounts up to $25,000 per year. The fields covered range from Islamic studies to chemistry, physics, computer science, and engineering. Since the graduate students are prohibited from disclosing the source of their funding to anyone, they are effectively violating widespread prohibitions against doing secret research on campus. One can only imagine the bizarre conversations these students are having with their advisors: “I’m concerned that we haven’t yet done anything to secure funding for you for next year. Should I draft a letter of recommendation for the fellowship committee?” “It’s OK. I’m not worried. I think I’ll be OK for next year.” “What do you mean? You haven’t turned in an application, have you?” “Don’t worry. Things will work out. I can’t say more.” As Price writes, PRISP “infects all of academia with a germ of dishonesty and distrust as participant scholars cloak their intentions and their ties to the hidden masters they serve.”7 PRISP was initiated as a pilot program in 2005, but the Obama administration’s 2010 budget made it a permanent item, thereby making a long-term commitment to placing students with “undisclosed ties to the CIA, FBI, NSA, The Defense Intelligence Agency and Homeland Security in American university classrooms.”8 And PRISP has been supplemented by the Intelligence Community Scholars Program (ICSP), which may provide still higher levels of funding. Can we really be certain that none of these students are reporting on their colleagues, especially now that the Patriot Act has relaxed rules against domestic spying? My own belief is that such programmatic developments also lead to changes in atmosphere and expectations that have begun to have a subtle and often indirect impact on campus life. One way to complicate this argument is to pose a challenge: would the University of Texas system board of regents have been willing or able to propose the accountability and evaluative standards for faculty that it did absent a decade of post-9/11 culture? The metrics for faculty performance had strong support from Texas’s governor Rick Perry and amount to a chilling increase in supervisory and state power in the Texas system. The plan reduced standards for faculty effectiveness and usefulness to a crude form of counting, jettisoning all subtle standards of both collective and personal evaluation. How many students do you teach? How much grant money do you bring in? How many articles do you publish? Making a dramatic change in the lives of a few students, intricately mentoring students who might otherwise fail, publishing one essay that changes a field rather than a dozen that have no impact, building a career that integrates teaching and research—none of this matters. And the data was made public, encouraging a state and national culture that conceptualizes higher education in terms of crude accounting metrics. With Florida’s governor adding his voice to national endorsements of the plan, we can expect to see the Texas academic freedom secession plan spread. It may be accompanied by metrically driven performance-based salary standards and certainly by demands to adjust pedagogical aims and practices to numerical goals. Some of us are old enough to remember that the body counts in Vietnam told us we had won the war, but I believe there was other evidence to the contrary. At the core of the educational mission, nothing that can be counted counts for anything. I am not, by the way, in the least confident that the more recent compromise with the University of Texas administrators, giving them more flexibility in establishing assessment and accountability standards on their individual campuses, will do much to preserve academic freedom in the long run. It will delay implementation and allow some deployment of more subtle local standards, but the campuses are not likely to be able entirely to jettison numerical metrics in performance evaluations. While blowback did partly counteract the profit and loss characterizations of individual faculty as being in the red or in the black (either costing more than they produce or bringing in revenue)—with positive or negative dollar signs tattooed on their foreheads—the proposal itself has changed the character of the national debate about higher education. Ground will be lost. The Texas surveillance protocols are themselves triumphs of the national accountability and assessment movement. In addition to housebreaking faculty members, the organized assessment, accountability, and productivity measurement movement aims to focus higher education on testable outcomes that can be comparable—and potentially uniform—across courses in a given discipline at multiple institutions. The movement has nearly overwhelmed K–12 education, and it includes many advocates seeking to quantify higher education goals and outcomes as well. I am opposed.


And I want to ask you to consider the example of the humanities at their most fierce as a telling critique of the ideology of outcomes assessment and the mechanized, uniform philosophy it invokes. In ways both subtle and not so subtle, the movement is gradually undermining academic freedom. Some of the most powerful intellectual and emotional experiences of my life have come in classroom discussions, in moments when my students and I together struggle with difficult questions and the impossibility of finding definitive answers. I am neither interested in nor willing to have proto-fascist legislators, shallow administrators, and corporate flacks reduce all this to job training or to results that are quantifiable or testable. I use this overheated rhetoric advisedly, for much of what I devote my professional life to is increasingly endangered. From time to time I teach a graduate seminar in Holocaust poetry. Although I have not yet offered it to undergraduates, it would work as an advanced undergraduate seminar as well. What would be irresponsible—and possibly dangerous—would be to offer it as a large lecture course, seeking high enrollment to satisfy some productivity metric imposed by Texas or any other state. The students and I need to share our responses in an intimate setting, and I need to follow the level of stress individual students report or display. The purpose of the course is to help all of us confront the infinite human capacity for evil and to evaluate poetry’s capacity to bear witness to it. I can track the success of the course in meeting those aims in every week’s emails and discussions, but I will not debase either the process or the results by testing my students. Nor is there a proper form of assessment beyond reflection, debate, and writing to judge how severely my students have been challenged culturally, psychologically, and intellectually by the seminar. I am interested in learning how their work and their lives have been changed, and I track that not only through ongoing conversations and evaluating their final projects but also through long-term interaction. Anne Frank is famously applauded for asserting that people are basically good, but she did not have the opportunity to reaffirm that article of faith after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The seminar puts up for consideration the proposition that human beings are not basically anything; that they await culture, family, society, institutions, and accident to be shaped into what they are. Unlike the post-9/11 xenophobes who seek an absolute external enemy that has established outposts within the nation, a critical perspective on humanity recognizes that there can be darkness everywhere. All physically possible actions and behaviors, all arguments capable of articulation, fall within the parameters of the human. Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is prohibited. Nothing is too monstrous to wear a human face. And the seminar reinforces relentlessly how severely the music of literary witness is undone by the facts it confronts. All this places a burden of pain on my students; it makes it less easy for them to live their lives. It complicates their self-understanding and their understanding of others. It should haunt the years as they go forward. Are such outcomes to be assessed? Such an assessment would be an obscenity. These are extreme goals, but I relate them to suggest how fundamental are the threats to academic freedom, to faculty and student rights, and to shared governance that we see coalescing on the surveillance campus today. Because the experience of reading hundreds of Holocaust poems is nearly unendurable, the class offers an opportunity for all of us to come together and discover the power and value of collaborative work, the work of analyzing the poems together in detail. But I have no interest in calibrating the character of our fragile classroom community. And, though the seminar is an occasion to hone skills in close reading, I would regard an effort to detach that skill from its historical context in the Holocaust as an obscenity. There are those who urge us to seek compromise with the assessment and quantifiable outcomes movement. Let’s own it and do it right, they urge. Not for what I do. Not for what I teach. Not for what I am calling “the fierce humanities,” for teaching that seeks not merely learning, but unlearning, that seeks to unsettle knowledge and assumptions in ways more fundamental than any exam can or should test. If you visit the large Holocaust memorial in Berlin, you will walk among a large field of massive granite blocks ranged row upon row. But the stone pathways among the monoliths are not level. They undulate. And the blocks themselves are not perfectly squared. They are subtly angled and off kilter. It is a monument to seriality and rationality unhinged, to uncertain knowledge, to human reason faltering and failing. It is often said that the Holocaust represents the dark side of the Enlightenment, the abstraction of reason, planning, and enumeration and their severance from value. How many cans of gas does it take to kill a million Jews? Is it more efficient to gas them or strangle them? In the basement beneath the gas chambers at Buchenwald, you can count the hooks on the walls that served the strangling option. Keep a count. Assess the costs and benefits. Of course the many vastly different cultural practices that have operated under this epistemological warrant across time are not interchangeable. But this point of connection can give us a warning about the limits of a certain recurrent investment into ethically blind counting. For what I teach and what I seek to do—and for the fierce humanities in general—the assessment, accountability, and quantifiable outcomes movement is nothing less than a benighted enlightenment fantasy of mastering the unmasterable, of quantifying what cannot be measured. If you as a teacher want to adopt its protocols, that’s fine. That’s academic freedom. Just don’t try to impose them on me. That is academic freedom as well. As the AAUP itself famously asserted in the 1915 Declaration, we must preserve the faculty right to challenge our students. That’s not what the forces aligned today against us want. Some want to reduce access to higher education so as to preserve an exploited underclass that can contribute to the wealth of a few. Others want higher education itself defanged and commodified for the same reasons. The calls to rein in and regulate higher education are lent a certain logic and inevitability by the surveillance culture we have partly adopted. We have no political party behind us supporting a more complex and unsettling view of educational aims. We who teach the fierce humanities and social sciences should step forward, testify to what we do, and create an emboldened constituency for academic freedom.


Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). He teaches English at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

1 Mark Danner, “After September 11: Our State of Exception,” New York Review of Books, October 13, 2011, 44–48.

2 “Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis” is available online at

3 See David Cole, “After September 11: What We Still Don’t Know,” New York Review of Books, September 29, 2011, 27–30.

4 Clinton Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948).

5 Danner, “After September 11,” 46.

6 David H. Price, Weaponizing Anthropology (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011).

7 Ibid., 42–43.

8 Ibid., 33.