Thursday, December 15, 2005

Jewish Week: Lander College Internet Ban

Well, this should be interesting. The Jewish Week's Adam Dickter has an article this week on the restricted internet access that students have at the Lander College for Men, which just so happens to be the school I attend. As a married student, I thankfully do not live in the dorms, so I do not have these issues, but I did live in the dorms a couple of years ago - and things have not really changed much.

The issues are obvious: Lander is a yeshiva, and there are definitely issues with what sites people can and should be able to access; on the other hand, it is also a college, and these are college students - adults whose maturity and judgement should be trusted. It is ridiculous that college students doing work cannot access almost any search engine, and even more ridiculous that sites necessary to do work and research are blocked from the dormitories.

While it's very nice that the school allows somewhat better access in the library and labs, only one computer lab and a small adjacent room are open for general use - a grand total of about 35 computers in the computer labs and less than 10 in the library. There are 165 undergraduate students and a couple dozen others studying for semicha (the rabbinate). Between the limited hours, limited computers, computers that tend to run incredibly slowly, and the wish to work on their own computer with their own files at their leisure, most students have their own laptops. I recall when I originally looked into Lander being shown around the dormitories - the large number of internet jacks available for laptops was heavily emphasized by the administration member who was showing me around.

If students did not have laptops, the backlog at the computer labs (which is already high) would be insane. For a school to emphasize the high-speed access the students have in the dormitories, but then not allow that access to be used for almost anything constructive, is just plain stupid, not to mention somewhat dishonest.

While I was a member of student government, it was brought up to the administration - as it had in the years prior to my arrival - that the internet access in the dorms was both slow and terribly restrictive. The school argued that there was little it could do, claiming it had no control over the bandwidth which was regulated by the main branch of Touro on 23rd street, and that there was nothing that could be done about the filters. Though many students specifically requested open full access with full monitoring, with some even mentioning specific programs that could be used, the school refused to implement any of these.

Finally, according to my understanding, there was recently an outcry over the lack of access to even simple mail accounts, such as Yahoo! or G-Mail. Now, when I was there, we could access our mail by skipping the Yahoo! homepage; apparently, they had closed certain things down at the beginning of the year, but inadvertently opened others up. Many search engines were now available - but the school did not know it. But with the outcry over the mail, the school went back through their logs to open them up; but while doing so, realized that the search engines were up, and closed them back down. Does it sound like they're being treated like kids yet? I thought so.

The College needs to understand that treating college students like children will not enhance its reputation, its stature, or most importantly, the school itself. Every school has issues, but this is one that is easily solved, and should be. I understand that people have temptations, but there are at least two good ways of dealing with this:
1) The school could install monitors that track what sites people visit and which can easily ensure that nobody goes anywhere improper. I do not believe that there is no way to have the computers themselves track the searches and sites people make and visit, and flag ones that seem objectionable. It is very nice that the administration claims there are too many searches to look through, but there should be a way of filtering them to find ones that may be problematic.

2) There is no reason that the same filters in the labs and library, which do not allow pornography and gaming sites, cannot be used in the dorms as well. Instead, the school is fostering a situation where students apparently find it necessary to get around the filters: But once they can get around them for Google, there's nothing stopping them from getting to a pornographic site, either.
Think about (1) this way: The same filters that are being used to block objectionable sites can be used to track the sites students visit. Instead of blocking anything that comes up, they can instead flag the questionable searches and have someone look over only those.

The school was apparently quite concerned with how this article in the Jewish Week would be written. Reading it, one realizes that the Jewish Week was quite charitable to the College in its presentation of the issues - many assumed that the article would have been much rougher and condescending to the school's policy. The school got, in the estimation of a few people who've read it, quite lucky. But this is not an issue that they can now breathe a sigh of relief and hope it goes away - the school cannot seriously expect to be regarded as a serious academic environment with conditions such as these. A better solution must be found.

In the article, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Sokol*, the Dean of Lander College for Men, was quoted as saying:
“As an academic institution we vigorously advocate academic freedom and research, and also want our students to be able to do that conveniently,” said Rabbi Sokol. “On the other hand, because it has this serious downside, we’ve had to balance those two concerns.”
Balance it better.

* I should note that I have respect and appreciation for R' Dr. Sokol as a dean and as a teacher (one of the more interesting classes I've taken). I happen to disagree with the school's decisions on this issue.

NOTE: If any students or administration would like to correct any part of this that they feel is incorrect, please e-mail me at serandez at verizon dot net. Thank you.

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