Students at Walla Walla University endured cold rain to stage a protest over the school’s proposal to filter Internet sites on campus. Students set up tents and held vigil round the clock for seventy-two hours in front of the administration building despite unpleasant conditions.
Students want greater say in the decision to block some Internet content on campus, and have responded with public protest.
Walla Walla alumnus John Campbell says that the protests began to materialize when a student sent out the following email message to fellow students:
Very recently, John McVay has proposed that our internet service become filtered. This would mean that we would lose our p2p network, game sites, and social networking sites to name a few. If you are like any other freedom lovin' person, you will realize that this isn't in your interest.
McVay's reasons are plentiful but the primary focus was this: a friend of McVay told him that they had tried to recruit a young man into coming to Walla Walla University. The boys family stated that they would not be comming to WWU because there was no internet filter. This story was relayed to McVay who decided that, and I quote, "it would be in the best interest of Walla Walla to start filtering the internet."
I for one would not have chosen to go to WWU if I knew that the internet was filtered. This is the key point we have to make in order to prevent this. While we can argue about all the other illogical points that McVay makes, this is the point that will make or break the argument. We need to rally together and protest peacefully. A online petition has been created here:
The petition, created on May 18, garnered eighty-one signatures within ten hours of going live. As of this article’s publication, the petition had 424 signatures.
On May 19, university president John McVay held a meeting with students to discuss the decision to filter content. The meeting was held in a room designed to accommodate sixty people. The meeting attracted far more students than the room’s capacity would allow. McVay tried to lay out the administration’s reasons for implementing filtering, but when it became clear to students that the decision was set, many became angry. Some students suggest that more time is needed to discuss the issue thoroughly, while others oppose the decision outright.
On May 30, President McVay sent a communiqué articulating the administration’s reasoning for filtering:
Dear WWU Campus, There has been an apparent disjuncture between our mission and its core values (Excellence in thought; Generosity in service; Beauty in expression; Faith in God) and the way we have delivered Internet services. In a bid to more closely align those two, the administration has planned to start filtering Internet service for pornography, adult sites and hate/violence sites beginning in fall quarter 2010. The plan has garnered some opposition on campus and the ensuing discussion threatens to distract us from our core, educational work during the final days of this quarter. To move forward together, we are naming two taskforces, both of which will include faculty, staff and student members (the latter chosen with the help of student leadership). The first will deal with the delivery of Internet services at WWU. That group will review the conversation to this point and gather any additional data from stakeholders—including students—that they deem necessary. They will fashion a proposal for offering Internet services in a way that more closely mirrors our mission. In doing so, they will explore filtering, monitoring and other alternatives. The second taskforce, responding to a significant and important interest that has been validated in our discussions, will focus on Internet-based addictions and how we may help those who suffer from them or are in danger of developing them. This group will explore the extent of these issues on our campus, audit what we have offered to students suffering from these addictions and suggest what additional resources should be on offer and what additional strategies should be employed. Both groups will be asked to offer a report to the president by August 15 to be forwarded to the Board of Trustees for consideration at its late-August meeting. The Board of Trustees, with these reports in hand, will ponder the matter and will have the full range of possibilities before it. Cordially, John McVay
Ian Field, the student association executive vice-president, says that because the conversation has been initiated so close to the end of the school year, the university is unable to sufficiently discuss Internet filtering and its ramifications. “That is why students and faculty have been camping out in front of the Administration Building, to peacefully protest,” says Field.
Christian Bell, a senior history major and one of the leaders of the student protest, lists additional concerns: Students were not informed in advance, and when they heard the decision, it was not open for discussion.
Next, Bell says, McVay’s responses to students’ questions were “patchy and vague.” Further, students object that the taskforces will not be truly representative of the student body since campus will be essentially vacant, and, Bell fears, the taskforces may be filled with people who already support the administration’s decision.
“Our main concern is not the filter issue itself, but rather the process by which our administration chose to implement the filter,” Bell says.
Senior humanities major Becca Parshall puts the issue this way: “The purpose of the Time To Talk protest is to give students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to express their concerns about the administration presenting such a far-reaching policy to the WWU board without having first and comprehensively consulted with experts in the field and dialogued with the campus community.”
Parshall claims that “the administration has not been able to present clear data on current network trends, the technology they would like to implement and if and how that will negatively affect internet use, or why this change deserves such rushed action.”
While students seem to be largely united in protest, not all students see it as worthwhile. Mark McMillan, a sophomore psychology major, has this to say: “I'm excited to see how much the students care about their school, and it's uniting the student body. I'm sad to think about the stress it's putting on our president and administration. The protesters are going about it in a non-threatening, effective way, I just think it's a little over the top...all this because admin. is thinking about taking away porn?”
The student protest leaders insist that their concern is not the access to online material so much as it is access to the decision-making process.
WWU Vice President Ginger Ketting-Weller clarifies that while students perceive the decision as recent, it has in fact been ten years in coming. Ketting-Weller notes that specific cabinet-level discussions first took place under President Jon Dybdahl, who preceded McVay. She also reveals that a Computer Users Committee, with student representation, has on several occasions discussed the issue. Previously, the committee advised against filtering over technical concerns such as reduced Internet speed and interference with academic resource needs.
President McVay re-initiated the discussion of filtering this spring after a board member expressed interest in bringing the topic to the board. The board member related the issue to his interaction with a prospective parent, and expressed his surprise that the university did not have an Internet filter in place. The administration conducted a survey of Adventist colleges and universities. Among schools that responded to the survey, only the Florida Hospital College does not filter Internet content.
A separate survey found that several of the faith-based universities in the Independent Colleges of Washington (a consortium to which WWU belongs) also filter the Net. These colleges and universities reported little to no technical difficulties after implementing filtration.
The administration decided conceptually to proceed with filtering, based on a commitment to bring Internet service into alignment with WWU's mission and values. The decision was shared with the board in their May 2 meeting.
The administration recognizes that filtering is not a foolproof method of stopping Internet use that is not in line with the school’s mission. Further, Ketting-Weller admits that filtering will not block gaming, which she says concerns her most.
She states that some students have “bottomed out” after becoming addicted to online games like World of Warcraft. “That’s death on studies. We’ve lost some students,” she says. One parent took a student out of Walla Walla and placed the student in a $15,000 addiction recovery program.
Ian Field shares the concern. “The problem of internet addictions is huge, and our society has largely not figured out how to handle it."
Meanwhile, students have finished what they have said is phase one of a four-phase plan to protest, according to an announcement to friends of the WWU Unite Facebook page. The student leaders are not revealing what the next three phases will include, but if their willingness to endure nasty weather is an indication of their resolve, there will be much more to come. John Lubke, one of the administrators of the WWU Unite page, says that students hope these outcomes will result from the protest:
The administraion [will] neither commit to a decision nor implemet an internet filter until the following have occurred during regular, non-summer academic sessions: 1. Experts in the field of internet addiction, network security, and counseling services have been consulted and thir responses have been presented. 2. Data from current network usage has been compiled into trends and presented 3. Better rationale for implementing internet filtering has been presented 4. More information on the effectiveness of implementing an internet filter at other institutions has been presented. 5. Students, faculty, and staff have been presented with the above results in accessible public forums in order to receive feedback on those results.
Becca Parshall adds, “with this protest, I hope the administration realizes how involved and thoughtfully concerned with their community their students are, and through that will realize that postponing a final decision on the internet censorship issue until more research and dialogue has been performed and presented will benefit this whole community.”
Vice President Ketting-Weller says the students have behaved “impeccably,” and that they are "respectful and articulate--the future leaders of our church,” she says. Still, she suggests that students will need to come to terms with the decision, in the end, being an administrative one.
Photos courtesy Carlton P. Henkes and Micah Wessman
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2409