Toward Information Justice – Technology, Politics, and Policy for Data in Higher Education Administration

Toward Information Justice - Technology, Politics, and Policy for Data in Higher Education Administration

This project began with a tweet:

Not only must data sovereignty trump open data, but we need active pro-social countermeasures—a data justice movement.

(@Dymaxion [Eleanor Saitta], June 27, 2012)

It turns out to be a lot harder to get out of academia than we think. I left a tenure-track faculty position in 2008. I enjoyed teaching, whether introductory American government or a political theory curriculum I had been allowed to design myself. But it was all I enjoyed. Being a political theorist, I went where I had a job, in a city I had been stationed as a Marine and swore I would never return to. It was an institution that was struggling to do more than provide the basics to students who had already been left behind by the US educational system, and too often indifferent to those students. I had some wonderful colleagues, but also had too many colleagues who had given up, marking time until their age plus years of service equaled 80. As the only political theorist (and the entirety of the philosophy program as well), I was completely isolated from colleagues in my field. At the same time, research in political theory had become tedious for me. I was tired of reading the latest on someone who had not written in half a millennium. Jeffrey Issac’s criticisms of political theory as having removed itself from politics (which, as I discuss in Sect. 1.4, play an important role in this book) had always impressed me, but they hit home as I attended conferences in which papers about such topics as “Arendt and the End of Investigative Journalism” turned out to be two pages on investigative journalism bookending 28 pages on Arendt. Five years out of graduate school, the sacrifices we never realize we make to make a living in academia had already burned me out.

I packed up my apartment, my then-fiancé, my dog, and her cats and moved to someplace beautiful (it is rough commuting along the Wasatch Front every day, but someone has to) and close to family (Hi, Mom!), intending to go to work in public policy. Still wanting to be a good citizen of my university and knowing the challenges of getting another tenure-track search, I had submitted my resignation at the beginning of the academic year, effective at its end. But that was the 2007–2008 academic year, and the job market in May 2008 was decidedly not what it was in September 2007. Government jobs were scarce because of budget cuts, and I discovered that I was overqualified by education and technical skills and underqualified by experience. The few interviews were perfunctory. I met the minimum qualifications, but the Kafkaesque decision was already made: I would be bored doing this work so I was better off unemployed; I could not be asked to work for someone with only a bachelor’s degree and a decade of experience; I did not have educational qualifications because teaching an environmental policy course did not count as taking an environmental policy course. So I returned to higher education, starting in the Institutional Research and Information office at Utah Valley University 18 months after I thought I was out of higher education.

For a political theorist, it turned out that I was a pretty damn good institutional researcher—pay attention in research methods, kids. The first thing one learns when starting in institutional research is that there is a thing called institutional research. Almost everyone I know in this field got here by accident, through a job announcement where the KSAs match the skill set of most graduate degrees and lead to someone saying, “Hey, I can do that.” That makes the field interesting, though. Few jobs surround one with many very smart people from many very different backgrounds. The second thing one learns, however, is more circumspect. Institutional researchers have a lot of data. As one begins to see the amount of data we have from so many different sources, especially about students, it is hard not to worry about what we can do with that data. Trained to ask these questions, having worked mainly in the politics of science and technology when I was a graduate student and professor, I began to think about them in my work. They kept me up at night and kept me arguing about them around the water cooler. But it was Eleanor Saitta’s tweet about data justice that provided a framework in which my initial questions coalesced into a project.

Toward Information Justice is the result of that project. Those who work with information, especially in higher education, struggle with the myriad ethical concerns our field presents. We can protect privacy, but sometimes that comes at the cost of denying students the opportunity to make informed decisions about their educational careers. We worry about disclosing data, but often do not consider the implications of creating data. We too easily assume that data is objective and apolitical rather than taking responsibility for (unavoidably, I will argue) practicing politics with our students. The aim of this book is to move us toward a coherent moral picture of information as it is used in public administration based on philosophical conceptions of justice. I do so in much the same way that environmental philosophers have understood environmental justice. That requires first understanding data as a political practice, and then rebuilding that practice so that it is consistent with what we consider to be right and/or good in social and political life. Hopefully, a theory of information justice can help practitioners resolve these challenges. To be sure, this book does not get there. But it does set the direction, and adds a valuable dimension to the array of incredible work being done in this field, by people I am proud to find are as insightful and stimulating as colleagues as I ever had as a professor.

Three months before I started this project, I had told a colleague and dear friend, Stephanie Mora Walls, that I was now an institutional researcher, out of political theory altogether, and would not continue to coauthor with her anymore. I owe her an apology. And I owe aspiring theorists a warning. Once a political theorist, it turns out, always a political theorist.

Jeffrey Alan Johnson


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