Thursday, December 29, 2011

Disaster by Design

or, The Family Doesn't Shelter Orphans

Tomorrow, at the latest, Boston College will give a federal judge a complete set of every interview in its archives from an oral history project that cataloged the secrets of republican paramilitaries which were active during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (Another set of interviews, those conducted with former members of loyalist paramilitaries, is still in play, but has not been turned over. See my last post here for background.)

After a pro forma review, those interviews will most likely go on, in full, to the federal government, and from there to the British government. In effect, Boston College has allowed itself to be turned into a police agency of the United Kingdom, securing extraordinarily sensitive information with a promise of confidentiality that was then abandoned.

No one can predict the future, but two outcomes are at least likely: First, the British government will use material gathered by an American university to attack and embarrass an important group of political enemies. Second, interviewees who were promised confidentiality but not given the protection they were guaranteed will be subjected to bitter, and possibly violent, personal recrimination.

In previous posts, I've focused on the recent failures that have led to this moment. But there's another story to tell: Boston College failed, and failed horribly, from the beginning.

First, the Belfast Project interviews were conducted and managed by outsiders, with little to no institutional investment. BC professors and grad students with expertise in Northern Ireland did not participate. That means that when the subpoenas began to arrive, there was no institutional investment. No one on campus needed to be protected. For BC, nothing was at stake but integrity, and that problem could be fudged by pointing at the subpoenas and claiming helplessness (even though, as I proved in my last post here, BC turned over material that was outside the boundaries of those subpoenas).

Second, the project had little formalized institutional management, which means that the Belfast Project had no established forms of protection built into the structure of the university. An oversight committee was conceived, but not convened. Inside BC, the oversight of the project was essentially ad hoc. A formal oversight committee could have served some of the functions of an institutional review board, policing the establishment of confidentiality and establishing a set of insiders with a direct investment in the project. Again, the absence of a formal organization in the university with narrow and particular responsibility for the Belfast Project means that there was little institutional investment. The Center for Irish Programs broadly sponsored the project, and Executive Director Thomas Hachey made promises about the university's commitment to the confidentiality of the interviews, but those promises were personal, ad hoc commitments founded on sand. The project needed an IRB.

Third, BC lacks a culture of faculty governance. Faculty tried to establish a faculty senate, several years ago, but failed. A narrow group of administrators exercise considerable decisionmaking authority, with little accountability or transparency. This structure of authority means that institutional controls over a project are narrowly distributed, and critics have nowhere to go. Bad decisions come down from the clouds, and they stick.

This third problem applies to this post, as well. For me, BC is a black box: things happen inside, and results emerge, but the process that led to those results are not clear. I've found a few ways to get a very limited look inside that box -- which I can't explain, for obvious reasons -- but I don't claim to have all the evidence I would want as I try to understand how BC failed so horribly.

So I invite more evidence from people inside BC, who can post comments here or send email to me. I use Yahoo mail; my user name is chrisabray.

More seriously, BC's Board of Trustees has a duty to find out why the institution they oversee has just released an entire set of extraordinarily sensitive interviews that the university promised to protect. The trustees should hire their own lawyers and commission an independent investigation.


  1. Many BC faculty members would agree with your characterization of Boston College as a black box. The recently formed BCAAUP has committed itself to promoting greater transparency in university affairs and effective faculty governance. BCAAUP members are also committed to defending academic freedom, but the process through which the Belfast Project evolved did not include any broad or meaningful faculty input or oversight—leading to predictable results. As the AAUP has long argued, academic freedom and faculty governance must go hand in hand. For more on this important relationship, see

  2. An important comment, and much appreciated. Thanks for the link.

  3. Adding that the failure of process -- the failure to include faculty input and oversight -- doesn't excuse BC's more recent failures. BC still commissioned this project, and promised to protect it.