Jerry Falwell's Liberty University leases student emails to political candidate
- The campaign for Corey Stewart, Virginia's Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, paid the private Liberty University $9,754 for email lists that likely contained contact information for students and likely donors and alumni as well.
- The News and Advance called the sale of private university student data to a political candidate in a federal election a "unique twist in the growing big-data economy." David Corry, general counsel for the nonprofit Christian university, said it offers the same service to all candidates. Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. — an advocate for conservative political policies — said he was unaware of the purchase, although the newspaper noted he had a prominent role in one Stewart ad that went to the Liberty University email addresses.
- Politicians often use open public records laws to obtain contact information for students at public institutions. Some public colleges and universities have provided public lists and other public student data in exchange for processing fees.
Liberty's move raises two issues: colleges' involvement in politics and their use of student data.
University presidents often believe they must remain neutral when it comes to campaigns and only carefully get involved in political issues. For example, they might express concern about a policy like three did last week regarding plans to roll back protections for transgender students under Title IX. Or they may spur their colleagues to speak out, the way one chancellor and former college president did in June when they advocated for college leaders to get involved in several issues related to immigration.
Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the pair noted more than 700 college presidents signed on to a letter supporting the continuation of the DACA program and 350 joined an alliance on higher education and immigration.
An August 2018 report from the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, which was widely endorsed by leading higher education groups, advocated for colleges to do more to involve students in politics and civics and increase their likelihood of voting. Colleges can also play a role in improving voting access for students.
Colleges collect loads of data on their students, and they face scrutiny over how they use it. About two years ago, Stanford University's Center for Advanced Research through Online Learning and Ithaka S+R teamed up to develop a series of guidelines covering student data collected by colleges.
While their resulting report discusses the many positive ways predictive analytics can be used to support students, it also expresses concern about the lack of "commonly shared routines for adjudicating conflicts of interest in data use for academic, commercial, and scientific purposes." The Chronicle recently pointed to the positive ways student data can be used while expressing concerns about limits, noting that as big data becomes more prominent, so too do questions of privacy and security.