By John Shmuel and Shivan Micoo
Chris Avenir set off a firestorm. When the 18 year-old Ryerson engineering student was nearly expelled for being the administrator of a Facebook study group in March, he inadvertently accelerated an ongoing debate at universities in Ontario, and especially at Ryerson — what role should schools play in monitoring their students and interests in an increasingly interconnected online world?
Avenir’s case and the explosive media coverage that followed left Ryerson administration looking outdated and unable to properly understand student interaction in cyberspace.
It was clear that Ryerson needed to radically rethink how it dealt with students violating school rules on the Internet. According to Julia Hanigsberg, General Counsel & Secretary to the Board of Govenors, the previous draft of the non-academic code of conduct (NACC) was created before most students were born.
It was archaic and couldn’t possibly have envisioned the impact of social networking sites like Facebook.
The solution: On September 3, 2008, Ryerson’s new Policy 61, the non-academic student code of conduct, became official school policy. Its creation is the product of five months of heated debate between alarmed students and a determined administration.
Andrew Clement, a faculty of information studies professor at the University of Toronto, says that the conflict is a result of schools trying to come to terms with the increasingly online lives of students.
“I am concerned that there is a general move by institutions to extend the scope of their surveillance, in part because it’s relatively easy to do,” he says. “I think if that’s not done with a sort of careful assessment of what’s at stake . . . then that function creep, or that mandate creep, will extend much more than is warranted.”
Much of the deadlock the policy initially encountered after Avenir’s case five months ago came from student opposition. Members of the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), especially then president Nora Loreto, were vehemently opposed to expanding the language of the document to what they saw as interference with students’ private lives.
“I think that codes of conduct like Policy 61 are problematic,” says Rebecca Rose, VP education of the RSU. “These are codes that tell students how to act and how to conduct themselves.”
Avner Levin, a professor at Ryerson who recently published a paper on youth perceptions of online privacy, contends that the new policy is there for the benefit of students, rather than as a tool to pry into their private lives.
“Privacy in students’ personal lives is separate of what you do as a student. I think that the university recognizes that, and it’s reflected in the code.”
All four agree however that there are no firm boundaries outlined in the policy when it comes to the Internet, partly because there are no fine lines in cyberspace. Which means that much of the policy’s implementation will have to be done on a case by case basis as they unfold in the coming months.
Behind the debate is Mickey Cirak, the newly-hired man in charge of investigating policy violation. He isn’t someone who evokes images of an Orwellian authority figure. In fact, he’s directly the opposite — a soft-spoken criminology major who left behind war in his native Serbia 14 years ago, and who’s also been involved in Toronto’s LGBT rights movement.
But Cirak holds the most contentious position ever created in Ryerson’s history — he’s the school’s first Student Conduct Officer, a position created in response to the mess that was the Avenir case.
His job is to deal with students who are accused of violating the newly implemented Policy 61.
He admits that the online realm presents a challenge for the school, and that disputes have the potential to be difficult considering the often blurred lines of Internet privacy.
Cirak however dismisses the idea that he was hired to police the Internet.
“At least from my end, my office is complaint driven,” he says in his slight Serbian accent. “I’m not out there looking for things and checking everything that’s happening online. If students are worried that I’ll be going into different chatrooms . . . that’s just not something that’s going to be done.”
His job is the culmination of almost two years of debate about how much authority Ryerson has in dealing with student misconduct in the online world.
It began with the “I’m a White Minority @ Ryerson” group created on Facebook in 2006. The group called itself Ryerson’s first ethnic/culture group for white people, creating a frenzy of debate on campus. The incident led the administration to rethink its role in dealing with how students behave online.
At around this time the first draft of Policy 61’s amendments was proposed.
In March of this year, the same time that Ryerson was debating the finer points of non-academic misconduct, clashes were erupting on other campuses across Ontario. Students at several universities were fighting to prevent such policies from being implemented at their own schools.
At Trent University, the administration made several attempts to extend a non-academic code of conduct to incorporate the online world. Overwhelming student opposition eventually led to its death.
More recently, at the University of Ottawa last month, the school announced that it had dropped plans to institute its own policy. The decision was made after a massive rally was held by students, and a petition they created reached over 3,000 signatures saying no to the code.
Ryerson’s policy was able to survive both a student petition and active opposition. It was eventually amended in response to that protest, with President Sheldon Levy boasting the new policy was created with student input.
Despite the amendments, the policy is still potentially harmful to students, according to Rose.
She contends that much of the language and structure in Policy 61 is similar to another school’s non-academic code — the University of Toronto’s, whose same code was used to arrest 14 students last year.
The arrests were made during a large-scale protest against hikes in tuition fees. In addition to charges under the non-academic code of conduct, the students were also charged criminally. Essentially, they’re now stuck in limbo. Their case is still ongoing because the investigation into their non-academic charges can’t begin until their criminal charges are resolved.
Rose says that whether an event happens off-campus or online, the non-academic code gives no firm timeline for how an investigation is supposed to proceed.
“What we were pushing for is to have a situation where, if that were to happen at our campus, there would have to be some sort of cut-off date. But the university absolutely refused to have any firm date.”
One of the largest concerns from critics of the policy is whether schools will take an active interest in students’ private lives. Especially at a time when they are increasingly being displayed openly on the Internet.
Ryerson’s original draft of Policy 61 contained a section specifically dedicated to the internet and online activities. Although that was eventually removed, the policy mentions briefly that it can apply to all mediums.
That sort of vague language, according to Rose, can leave students feeling vulnerable when using online services such as social networking sites.
“A concern is that students can be penalized for what they do on Facebook, or a photo of them that appears on Facebook.”
Students getting penalized or even expelled for photos of their private lives posted online has a great deal of precedence.
In the United States, Stacy Snyder, a graduate student at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, was denied an education degree because of a photo. She was deemed unfit to teach after a picture of her appeared on MySpace drinking beer and wearing a pirate hat. In a similar incident in 2005, Georgia’s Valdosta State University expelled a student for posting an online collage ridiculing the school president.
Levin argues that such pictures would have been made public regardless of whether there was a code.
“If someone wants to actively look someone up, they could have done that before the code was reviewed. They could do this by using Google or the many other options available to them.”
Back at Cirak’s office, the main point he’s trying to drive home is that the enforcement of the non-academic code of conduct is only a two person operation.
Cirak reports to Heather Lane Vetere, Ryerson’s new Vice-Provost students. Only he and Vetere are in charge of dealing with complaints made under the new policy, and it’s a system driven by complaints made from students, faculty and staff.
He says that his office simply doesn’t have the resources to actively monitor students to ensure that no violations of the code are occurring in cyberspace.
Vetere echoes this sentiment.
“This doesn’t mean that any big brother monitoring will be taking place. Mickey reports to me; he doesn’t have the time, nor do I, to look at everyone’s Facebook pages.”
However, both acknowledge that there is nothing in the code preventing them from doing so.
When Cirak is asked whether there will be additions to the Vice-Provost students office to assist him with the position in the future, he contemplates the idea for a moment.
“That’s a very good question. That’s something that will be determined and developed as my position sort of rolls out over time.”