Chris Bray: Boston College Burns the Seed Corn

Boston College Burns the Seed Corn
Chris Bray
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2012

The continuing discussion about Boston College and the federal subpoenas of its Belfast Project material is a discussion about the very thing itself, about the place and nature of academic inquiry. What is a research university? What does it do? What is its purpose, its structure, its premise, its principle?

Here, again, is a paragraph from a Feb. 15 story in The Heights, the student-run newspaper at Boston College:

On the other hand, Dunn stated that the University made no such promises, and in fact informed Moloney and McIntyre of the risk of subpoena and the danger such a situation could pose to the archives. He admitted that the language “to the extent that American law provides” was not found exactly in the donor agreement, but stated his belief that the contract was drawn up by Moloney, not BC.

Ed Moloney — a journalist, not on faculty, hired as a contractor to run a research project under BC’s aegis — supposedly wrote the contracts between BC and its research subjects.

So the claim here, made in the university’s defense, is that Boston College funded and sponsored a research project that it then didn’t run or manage. The university hired outside researchers to conduct research in its name, calling the researchers employees, but left to these subordinate outsiders the task of framing the relationship between BC and the human subjects of sensitive research.

Trying to defend his university, Jack Dunn hollows its core; his defense is that Boston College conducts research without standards or oversight. It was just, you know, the researchers did their thing, man, and we were just here doing our thing, and like whatevs. Oh, that Moloney guy didn’t put that stuff about the legal limits of confidentiality into the contract with the interviewees? Oh, man, maybe we should have had some kind of involvement in that!

Now, look: I don’t believe him for a moment, and as Ted Folkman has written (“I should add that I would be surprised if BC would allow a BC researcher to draft a contract that binds the University without putting it through a legal review.”), it’s an awfully strange thing to claim.

But the striking thing is that this is Dunn’s idea of a defense, of a claim that puts the university on safer ground. He doesn’t appear to notice the devastating implications of the claim that BC had nothing to do with the relationship between its researchers and its research subjects.

So over the weekend, I sent an email message to the provost of Boston College, adding the vice-provost for research to the CC list:

Dr. Garza,

I have written about the Belfast Project subpoenas in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, the Irish Times, and the Irish Echo, as well as on my own blog. I direct this message to you, rather than to BC’s public affairs office, because I have a question about research and academic affairs that relates to statements the public affairs office has recently made. I don’t see the point of asking the public affairs office about the public affairs office — the matter in question relates directly to the academic standards of the university.

A Feb. 15 story in The Heights, “Researchers Weigh In On Belfast Project Legal Drama,” contains this paragraph:

“On the other hand, Dunn stated that the University made no such promises, and in fact informed Moloney and McIntyre of the risk of subpoena and the danger such a situation could pose to the archives. He admitted that the language ‘to the extent that American law provides’ was not found exactly in the donor agreement, but stated his belief that the contract was drawn up by Moloney, not BC.”

Dunn’s claim is that Boston College agreed to be bound by a human subjects contract written by outside researchers in BC’s name, without BC’s participation or review. In other words, his claim is that Boston College sponsors research projects that are not governed by BC’s research standards, deferring to the standards of subordinate outsiders and contractors in those research projects. Do you agree with Jack Dunn’s description of BC’s relationship with its Belfast Project researchers? More generally, do you agree that BC allows itself, as a matter of policy, to be bound in research projects by contracts BC does not write or review? Does BC generally oversee research projects sponsored and funded by the university, or does BC generally allow such projects to take place without oversight or internal standards?

I suspect Jack Dunn has misspoken, and I hope you will clarify.

Thank you for your time.

Chris Bray

No response, which is what I expected, but also no public retraction or clarification of Dunn’s exceptionally destructive claim, which is surprising and disappointing.

One guy at Boston College, who is not an academic or part of the academic life of the university, said something stupid and damaging. But the university did not set the record straight. The academic center of the institution allowed its spokesman to say that BC doesn’t run its own research projects, and doesn’t have standards for outside researchers hired by the university.

Passive in the face of absurd lies made on its behalf, Boston College now owns those lies as an institution. Bert Garza, the academic standards of the university are your responsibility. This is your job. And you didn’t do it.