Security versus Openness: The Case of Universities

The decade of the 1980s was marked by declines in the United States’ manufacturing skills and the apparent invincibility of Japanese industry. In this climate, many people in the academic community were concerned that the U.S. government might impose restrictions on the open publication of academic research results or on the openness of U.S. universities to international students and scholars. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, had a variety of industrial liaison activities under way, and we argued that such programs were in the national interest. Today, the concerns of the 1980s that were based on the economic ascendancy of Japan seem alarmist, at best.

The poorly defined designation of “sensitive but not classified” carries the risk of being applied much more broadly than may be warranted.

However, the unprecedented tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the government’s expanding war on terrorism present the academic community with similar worries, albeit of different origin. The fact that several of the terrorists had studied aviation in this country, the apparent amnesia of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service with respect to foreign nationals admitted to the United States, and concerns in Congress and the administration about the transfer of knowledge that might be of use to terrorists have combined to raise again the possibility that the government may place restrictions on colleges and universities. Such restrictions might come in two forms. First, depending on their nationality or ethnic background, international students admitted to U.S. colleges and universities may not be able to enroll in those schools. Second, there may be restraints placed on the openness of research in certain fields and on the publication of research results.

Seeking balance

Clearly, the United States and its institutions of higher education must seek the appropriate balance between two imperatives: the prevention of future terrorist attacks and the openness of study and research that has served the nation so well during the past 60 years. Defining the elements of an appropriate balance will require care, and the course of discussions should involve representatives of higher education. It is essential that two perspectives concerning academic research and higher education be considered in those discussions.

First, there is the fact that the excellence and creativity sought in students and faculty do not come solely with U.S. passports. The MIT experience provides compelling evidence that the men and women who have come to the United States from abroad to learn, to contribute to the development of new knowledge and skills, and not infrequently to join the faculties of this and other U.S. universities have enhanced the stature of research universities and have made important contributions to society. The international graduates of U.S. universities who take positions in the nation’s technically based industries often fill positions that there are too few qualified U.S. citizens to fill. The United States clearly would be measurably poorer without international graduates.

It is important to preserve the separation of the roles of universities and of government with respect to the matriculation of international students. Universities make decisions affecting international applicants on the basis of their evident qualifications. The State Department then exercises its judgment by taking action on an applicant’s request for a student visa. Presumably this judgment takes into account the national origin and the academic intentions of the student and the possibility that his or her planned educational activities in the United States could contribute to the dissemination of knowledge about hazards such as potential weapons of mass destruction. Although no one involved in this process can regard either the issue or the judgment as unimportant, there is concern that in the human urge to be comprehensive and give national security the benefit of any doubt, the constraints imposed will be so broad as to limit too greatly the flow of outstanding international students and scholars to the nation.

The second perspective that must be considered is the concern that severe restrictions on the open publication of research results in certain fields will impede the progress of research itself. This issue arose at MIT nearly 25 years ago, when representatives of the government’s intelligence and national security communities came very close to classifying research here on the topics of two-key cryptography and computer network security.

As the development of the Linux computer operating system so elegantly demonstrates, research in the field of computer science is a transnational effort–an effort that thrives on openness. Investigators publish online and present results at open conferences to encourage the scrutiny of their work by others. Collective progress is made incrementally in a distributed manner. On the frontiers of modern molecular biology, including genomics and proteomics, it must surely be true as well that openness about work in progress and free access to results accelerates research progress everywhere and enhances the development of findings that are of benefit to society.

Troubling labels

Of particular concern with respect to controls on research results and an individual’s access to research or to areas of study is the government’s drive to create “Sensitive Areas of Study.” This designation is unlike the several familiar categories of classification, such as Confidential or Secret. Those categories are well understood from many years of use, are limited to carefully defined situations, and are applied by specifically authorized organizations or persons. The poorly defined designation of “sensitive but not classified” carries the risk of being applied much more broadly than may be warranted.

The propositions that universities and colleges are open institutions, that study and research are accessible to all those who are qualified, and that the results of investigations are published promptly or otherwise shared with the larger community are deeply held by most academic institutions. This fact is not because it has always been that way, but because openness is essential to learning, to intellectual discourse, and to greater understanding. Many research universities, including MIT, have policies that specifically prohibit the creation of restricted areas of study or research. We already have had to turn back several federal grants or contracts that labeled the proposed research as sensitive and would have required that access to work in process and results be limited to U.S. citizens.

This issue emerged nearly 20 years ago and was settled in 1985 by a directive of President Reagan, which stated that federally funded research should either be classified in the familiar sense or should not be restricted, with the determination to be made by the funding agency. Such a policy is needed now, both for funded research and for areas of study.

In this time of instability and uncertainty, finding the appropriate balance between national security and the intellectual openness that is so important to the academic enterprise is a necessary and difficult task. Surely the judgments involved should be guided by an ongoing dialogue in which government officials and representatives of universities and colleges strive together for answers that will best serve the nation.

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Cite this Article

Gray, Paul E. “Security versus Openness: The Case of Universities.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003