Dear University Leaders: You might want to think twice before clicking “send” on your next e-mail.
WikiLeaks, scourge of governments worldwide, now has a copycat for academe. And the new group is itching to publish your university’s deepest secrets.
Its Web site, UniLeaks, debuted this month with a pair of open letters to university leaders in Australia and Britain. The Australian activists who run UniLeaks are pushing for openness in the face of what they see as the corporatization of higher education. They complain of unprofitable courses abolished, employees made less secure, and students reduced “to mere customers or clients of the university.”
UniLeaks has yet to back that bluster with any blockbuster scoops. But the site’s main administrator says it has received an “overwhelming” amount of correspondence from Britain-based students and academics. That support includes at least one potentially newsworthy data dump: an “entire e-mail repository” of a “large prominent university in the United Kingdom,” a database that seems to be limited to senior management at the institution.
And UniLeaks hopes to be an outlet for whistle-blowers in America, too.
“Universities are unique in that they generally receive quite a deal of public funding,” says the administrator, a former student at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “We feel that the general public has a right to have universities act very transparently, in a way that is accountable.”
The Chronicle spoke with the administrator by phone from Melbourne, after tracking the group down through an e-mail address listed on the UniLeaks Web site and Twitter feed. The newspaper is granting the administrator anonymity because the administrator fears legal action from a university about which UniLeaks is trying to publish information.
WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group fronted by Australian-born Julian Assange, has already spawned a series of other knock-off sites. The most prominent one has been OpenLeaks, started by former members of WikiLeaks. Two separate environmental groups are vying for the name GreenLeaks. Then there’s a site about corruption in Russia. And another about the European Union.
“I always thought the most powerful element of WikiLeaks was the idea of WikiLeaks, more than the actual organization,” says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, a project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. “It’s an idea that is easily transferable in a thousand different ways.”
But can the idea take off in higher education?
One of the big challenges is generating enough interest from readers and potential sources. Mr. Benton points out that WikiLeaks itself had been around for some time before gaining mainstream attention for exposing diplomatic cables and documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A single source, Bradley Manning, is suspected of providing WikiLeaks with much of its famous content. “So in a sense it comes down to whether a site like this could have that sort of a breakthrough moment,” Mr. Benton says. “Is there a Bradley Manning who’s willing to do what he did?”
There are existing places to spread anonymous online gossip about universities—places like CollegeACB, a site similar to the now-defunct Juicy Campus. UniLeaks professes to be different. It filters content, rather than allowing users to post directly. It accepts only material that is in the public interest, says the administrator. “We don’t accept rumor,” says the administrator.
But the rumors are pouring in anyway.
It’s been “fascinating” to wade through the tips that have arrived about low-level personal issues in various university departments, says the administrator. (Sample reaction: “I can’t believe he’s having sex with both of them. Wow!”) But the administrator deletes them: “Just because Professor What’s-His-Name is having sex, that’s not something we can actually put all over the Web site.”
So what is UniLeaks looking for? Internal reports. Evaluations. Research that’s being kept hidden. Contracts. E-mails. Anything confidential that falls under this guideline: “UniLeaks will accept restricted or censored material of political, ethical, diplomatic, or historical significance which is in some way connected to higher education.”
Mr. Benton points out that there’s “a whole sea of behavior that universities don’t like to publicize.”
“Think of the equivalent to the diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks released,” he says. “This was material that was unusually forthright, that was intended purely for internal circulation. And I’m sure that there are equivalent memos and equivalent documents in lots and lots of colleges and universities that the president certainly has no interest in having see the light of day.”