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Adminstrators question Facebook postings

Mary Kate Malone | Wednesday, March 29, 2006

As a growing number of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students poke, post and tag their way into the Facebook universe, administrators on both campuses are taking a closer look into the social-networking Web site – in some cases, creating their own accounts and viewing student profiles.

Facebook, created two years ago by Mark Zuckerburg, has exploded in popularity across college campuses nationwide. And since the only requirement for membership is a “.edu” e-mail address, virtually any staff member with a University e-mail address can join.

Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Bill Kirk said there is no formal policy “that would prohibit or require” the use of Facebook in disciplinary situations, but cautioned that students must be prudent with what they reveal on their profiles.

“I just don’t think there’s much of an expectation of privacy on Facebook and [students] are misguided if they expect privacy on a public medium … that would be a misunderstanding,” Kirk said.

Director of Residence Life and Housing Jeffrey Shoup would not specify how many in his office have Facebook identities, but said “at least one of us” has a Facebook account.

“I’d say every couple of weeks someone is accessing Facebook [from the Office of Residence Life and Housing.]”

So what exactly do University administrators do on Facebook?

“I’ll give you an example,” Shoup said. “Say some student comes in and says ‘I’ve never been underage in a bar,’ and I said ‘So if I pull you up on Facebook, would I see any pictures of you in a bar?’ And they said ‘sure,’ and I might pull them up, and if they have a picture of themselves in a bar, I think that would be a problem.”

Kirk and Shoup both stressed that administrators are not using Facebook as a tool to uncover potential DuLac violations. ResLife has not taken punitive measures based on the content of a student’s profile, Shoup said.

“I’m not going to sit here all evening to see if people are violating policy, but if a student has been accused already, I might take a look and check out Facebook,” Shoup said.

But administrators and rectors alike are aware of Facebook and – in light of national news stories about the dangers of the third party site – becoming increasingly skeptical of it.

Farley rector Sister Carrine Etheridge, who does not have a Facebook account, said she is aware of Facebook’s pervasiveness on college campuses, thanks to a cautionary e-mail she received from Vice President for Student Affairs Father Mark Poorman earlier this semester.

The e-mail included a copy of a news story about administrators at Pennsylvania State University who used Facebook to track down and punish students who stormed the football field after Penn State’s win over Ohio State last fall, Etheridge said.

“It was more FYI,” she said. “[Poorman] sends us things periodically.”

Etheridge said the information from Poorman did not indicate that similar actions would be taken by the University, but the e-mail cautioned rectors to be aware of the “dangers” of Facebook and other third party websites like MySpace.com.

“The other thing I worry about with Facebook is that things that [students] put on Facebook that are funny now could come back when they’re trying to get a job… I think that’s a real shame to be up for a really great job [and] to have a picture that’s on Facebook cast a shadow over their character.”

For Navy ROTC (NROTC) midshipmen, Facebook profiles are under further scrutiny by their superiors.

“We have no set policy per se over here, but our midshipmen are by definition, representatives of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, and as officers and officers-in-training for the Navy and Marine Corps we wouldn’t expect them to put on Web sites anything their grandmother wouldn’t be OK seeing,” NROTC commander Jeffery Morris said.

Morris said he has his own Facebook account that he accesses about once every two months to “see what everyone is doing.”

“It’s purely random,” he said. “[It’s like] keeping your finger on a pulse. Some people might say it’s a little more than that. I’m trying to see what’s out there.”

Morris has received “numerous e-mails” from Navy ROTC units at other universities around the nation, most of which advise Morris to “check and see what your midshipmen are posting” on Facebook.

He said he’s only had to speak with “one or two” midshipmen about their profiles.

If he finds a profile that has questionable photographs on it, he will call the midshipman into his office – but no punitive measures are taken.

“I’d have their advisor talk to them and say ‘Hey, I happen to be surfing Facebook today, I saw your site, are you sure your mother or grandmother would be OK with what you have on there?'”

What Notre Dame students must remember, Shoup said, is that Facebook is not a private site.

“Like I said, it’s public domain,” he said. “If someone puts something on Facebook or MySpace, I can look at it, their priests can look at it, parents can look at it …”

Facebook at Saint Mary’s

At Saint Mary’s, the use of Facebook by administrators is more pervasive. But as at Notre Dame, no punitive measures have been taken against students with questionable profiles – or not yet, at least.

“Saint Mary’s is just beginning to explore ways to utilize Facebook to communicate with students and to determine if these sites should be considered when hiring for student leadership positions,” director of Residence Life Michelle Russell said in an e-mail.

Russell said her main concern with Facebook is the threat it poses to student safety.

“My biggest concern is for the student’s privacy and safety in posting these photos,” Russell said. “Obviously everyone in the Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame community can access this information and pass it on to anyone.”

Russell has a Facebook account and accesses the Web site about once every two weeks – or if someone posts a message on her Facebook wall.

“I rarely just go in to look around,” Russell said. “I just don’t have the time.”

Facebook is also accessed by department chairs, like nursing department chair Linda Zoeller. She has access to Facebook and said two or three others in her department of 12 also have accounts.

“I have every right to be on Facebook as much as anyone else,” Zoeller said. “That’s something I’m entitled to do, like any other person with a ‘.edu’ address. But it helped me to see what was happening and how it’s being used.”

Zoeller said she heard about Facebook earlier this year from one of her students who informed her about the site and the questionable photographs posted on it. As department chair, she said it’s her responsibility to maintain her Facebook membership.

“I’m not sure I would have gotten into it [otherwise] but when I finally did it was concerning to me … the way [Saint Mary’s students] decided to have themselves represented in that domain,” Zoeller said. “Partying, drinking out of a pitcher, being in revealing clothing, you get the picture.”

Zoeller has not taken punitive action in regards to what she has seen on Facebook. Instead, she uses the site as a point of discussion in her classes – warning students about the potential predators who could be roaming the site and reminding students that future employers might be looking at their profiles.

“I’m trying to inform students. I’ve spoken with a couple [students] in particular … [we] need to have them understand the ramifications of the use of their space and to point back to what is a violation if you don’t have someone’s permission,” Zoeller said.