Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 21, 2024

Hopkins received criticism on Monday when the University’s adherence to academic freedom was called into question. Matthew Green, a computer science professor, authored a recent blog post critiquing the National Security Agency (NSA). As a specialist in applied cryptology, he condemned the NSA’s ability to bypass online encryption that safeguards sensitive information on the internet. Four days later, Andrew Douglas, interim dean of the Whiting School of Engineering (WSE), instructed Green to remove his blog post from the Hopkins servers because it included the NSA logo and linked to classified information.

“My goal was to protect Matt,” Douglas wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

While Green removed the post from the mirror site of the blog on the Hopkins servers, the professor was allowed to keep the post on his personal blog found on a site unaffiliated with Hopkins.

Although the University cited potential legal ramifications surrounding Green’s post, Hopkins administrators did not consult with the Hopkins General Counsel to explore these legal issues in depth before speaking to Green.

Someone at the Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) - which serves as a “trusted agent” to the NSA, according to the APL website - discovered Green’s post and alerted a staff member on the Homewood campus. “That contact may have been misinterpreted at Homewood as a request to take the post down,” Dennis O’Shea, executive director of media relations and crisis communications at Hopkins, said. “Although, I am told by the APL that it was intended only as an FYI.”

O’Shea indicated that  the APL noticed Green’s blog by chance, rather than through deliberate surveillance of Homewood faculty. “They were not looking for something at Homewood,” O’Shea said. “They thought this was something at APL. They later determined that it was not, and that’s why they contacted Homewood.”

On Monday, after a more extensive  examination of the content on Green’s blog, the administration realized that the links to classified information had already been shared by ProPublica, The New York Times and The Guardian. Douglas reversed his initial decision and permitted Green to re-post his critique without the NSA logo.

Douglas issued a public apology letter to Green on Tuesday.

“I realize now that I acted too quickly, on the basis of inadequate and - as it turns out - incorrect information,” Douglas wrote in an a letter to Green released by the University. “I requested that you take down the post without adequately checking that information and without first providing you with an opportunity to correct it.”

In his communications with Green, the interim dean included the 1940 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Arthur Lovejoy, a philosopher at Hopkins, helped establish the AAUP in 1915 in hopes of defending the academic freedom of professors at institutions of higher education.

“I am committed to both academic freedom and to protecting the faculty in the WSE from doing things, which might put them at risk,” Douglas wrote. “This incident has demonstrated that this University will act swiftly to make sure that academic freedoms are preserved.”

Douglas stated that academic freedom policies pertaining to faculty work posted on the Hopkins servers vary. “The range of scholarship is extremely broad and different circumstances apply,” Douglas wrote. “For example, some clinical faculty have HIPAA restrictions. Faculty members who hold a security clearance have to be mindful of restrictions placed on them.”

However, Douglas’s public apology has not entirely quelled the concerns on campus pertaining to how censorship issues - regardless of how quickly they are rectified - will shape academic freedom at Hopkins in the future.

Political science Professor Renee Marlin-Bennett conducts research on the politics and political economy of information. Marlin-Bennett is not as worried that Douglas asked Green to remove his blog post because the Dean quickly realized his mistake and corrected the situation. “I am much more concerned about how the University responds in the future to whoever may be out there patrolling our blogs, looking for content that they find objectionable and reporting it to University administrators,” Marlin-Bennett wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Academic freedom would be grievously threatened if administrators act on efforts (either external or internal to the University) to chill speech.”

Although Stuart Leslie, a history of science and technology professor, acknowledged that it is possible that situations, such as the Green case, will lead professors to exercise more caution when posting information in the future, he is more optimistic than other faculty members. “We think academic freedom will protect us more than it probably will, but we are not afraid to put our opinions out there.”

Leslie feels that it is becoming more challenging to suppress information in an increasingly digital age. “By the time [Green’s blog post] was taken down, it was already news all over the world, so I do not think that it is an effective policy,” Leslie said.

Other members of the Hopkins community want the administration to be more transparent about its relationship with the APL.

Joseph Haley, a graduate student in the english department, drafted a petition on academic freedom to present to the Board of Trustees. “As stakeholders in this institution, we are at fault for demanding so little accountability from its leaders on issues of corporate governance and our dependence upon defense funding,” Haley wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Haley hopes that the petition on academic freedom will lead to a spike in transparency regarding the relationship between the University administration and defense funding. “I’d like us to begin demanding an institution that reflects our shared values,” Haley wrote.

Due to the WSE’s close relationship to the APL, Joel Andreas, a sociology professor, fears that these joint operations could lead the Whiting administration to become more repressive. “They’re very concerned about the reputation of the University as trustworthy by their contractors,” Andreas said.

According to its website, the APL works on programs serving government agencies, including NASA, NSA sponsors, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, to name a few.

As an administrator in a leadership position, Douglas is held responsible for protecting the WSE faculty from potentially harmful situations. “I share a deep concern for academic freedom but also have a duty to protect the faculty and the University,” Douglas wrote.

However, despite fears that academic freedom at Hopkins is at stake, O’Shea stressed that the University will remain committed to maintaining the principles of academic freedom. “Academic freedom is a vital principle for universities to do what they exist to do,” O’Shea said. “We cannot do what we do without academic freedom.”

 


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