Snapshots in the Classroom

Bol's secretive study is unacceptable

Over the past two years, events close to home have heightened the general interest in—and fear of—unwarranted or unexpected surveillance. Last week's revelations that Vice Provost for Advances in Learning Peter K. Bol authorized the photographing of classrooms to collect data on attendance in classes during the spring 2014 semester brought them closer once again. The study sparked significant backlash from some faculty members, with some like Professor Peter Burgard going so far as to say the actions amounted to “spying on students and faculty without telling them.”

Bol’s actions must spark many questions about how the university must balance privacy rights and faculty control over the classroom with the quest to constantly improve teaching methodology. In this case, Bol’s researchers went too far.

The closed, essentially secret manner in which the study was authorized without any consultation of the faculty whose classrooms were monitored is troubling. Professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 commented at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting on November 4 calling for “assurance that all the students and faculty who were subjects of this nonconsensual study will be informed that they were under photographic surveillance”—a necessary remedy at this point.

But given that Professor Lewis was only made aware of the surveillance from “two of [his] faculty colleagues”, and that Bol personally discussed the study and “made appointments...with course heads,” but apparently no students, it is clear that there do not exist robust enough disclosure requirements for such studies. Vice Provost Bol could not be reached for comment on this issue on Tuesday, but we hope both Bol and University President Drew G. Faust heed Professor Lewis's call.

Professor Lewis’s specific indication that neither of his surveilled colleagues were tenured points to a whole other potential issue with Bol’s proceedings.


We do not doubt the potential importance of class attendance data but administrators should not intimidate and surprise faculty, especially when non-tenured,  after the fact. The data collection was ostensibly for mere use in an academic study. But the way in which it was presented to faculty brings this into question. It is unconvincing to argue that there were no alternatives to the path taken to collect data on attendance. Perhaps professors could have been informed before and students directly after, so as to mitigate sample bias. 

Harvard’s policies regarding photography in the classroom require significant updating. The insidious potential uses of photographic data should not be forgotten. According to current policy, “photography or videotaping which is carried out by the university or its schools” will “[g]enerally... be permitted”. But there is not a single mention of student privacy or consent.  The administration has the ability to strike a better balance between student privacy and improved pedagogical practices—and they must.


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