Should Students Be Obligated to Disclose Personal Info to a For-Profit Corporation?
Ever since the halcyon days of my youth, when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reigned supreme and intrepid reporter April O’Neil was my idol, I have wanted to be a journalist. There was just something about April’s tenacity, her refusal to take crap from anyone and her passion for pursuing the perfect story-a passion that shone as brightly as her neon-yellow jumpsuit in my eight-year old eyes.
Sure, she had a tendency to get kidnapped. Sure, she often got the Turtles into more trouble than she got them out of. And sure, by all intents and purposes, that yellow should totally have clashed with the red tones in her auburn hair.
But, April was still my childhood hero. Maybe it was the fact that she was a red-headed reporter just like my mom. Or maybe it was the fact that she could outwit and outrun a ninja while magically maintaining her full face of makeup. Either way, I think a part of me has been trying to be April ever since those first few episodes of Turles back in the day. And, although I have yet to figure out how to properly pull off a banana-hued jumpsuit, I have managed to make a career out of journalism, albeit journalism of the more arts and entertainment variety.
Which is why, when confronted with the chance to do some hardcore investigative reporting, I jumped. Go deep undercover into unknown territory in pursuit of an article? I was all over it faster than the Turtles on a steaming pizza pie. So, last Friday, I settled on an alias, grabbed my glasses and sat down at the computer for what I was sure would be an enthralling session of serious investigative reporting. I was an intrepid reporter, with the enthusiasm and eyewear to match. And, I was especially bored during a particularly slow afternoon at the gallery where I work.
My mission was clear: In its Friday issue, the Daily Nexus published an article discussing a new mandate handed down by the UCSB administration that requires all new freshman to complete a quiz about alcohol and health on the website MyStudentBody.com. Students who fail to complete the assignment by the Nov. 1 deadline will have their registration privileges blocked for winter quarter, pending completion with a passing score of 80 percent or higher. Campus officials were quoted as saying this is the administration’s attempt to lay down the law about alcohol’s effects early on in new students’ college careers.
My interest was piqued.
Like any good journalist, I wanted to know who, what, when, where, why and how. Who was behind this website? What exactly did it intend to teach students? When would busy new students find the time to finish a silly quiz smack in the middle of midterms week? Where could all this mandated alcohol education be going in the future? And how would the website even work?
Following April’s lead, I did the only thing a good journalist could do when faced with a series of questions. I investigated. And, lo and behold, I got answers.
MyStudentBody.com was first developed by a bunch of health educators, behavioral scientists and multimedia designers with money from a grant given to the site by the National Institutes of Health. According to the website, its stated mission is to “help students examine personal beliefs, behaviors and consequences, while delivering the distinctive MyStudentBody.com brand of prevention education through engaging interactive tools, flash animation peer stories, and student-friendly informational pieces.”
Sounds benign enough, right?
Sure, until you dig a little deeper. Upon further investigation, I found out that the site is actually owned and operated by a company with a name that would be right at home adorning the letterhead of pretty much any nefarious comic-book corporation: Inflexxion Inc. Buried in the website is the following description of the company. “Inflexxion, Inc. is a for-profit company that works within a grant mechanism that promotes commercialization as a means of technology transfer. To a large extent, profits are devoted to site maintenance, expansion, and customer support.” So, apparently, the answer to the ‘who’ question boils down to the Board of Directors of a big corporation. Okay.
Now for the rest of my queries. After extensive surfing on the site, I came to the conclusion that there is really only one answer to all the aforementioned questions. MyStudentBody.com provides students with a series of questions designed to make even the most average partier feel like an alcoholic, prompting an immediate turn to the site’s so-called expert advice, which consists of little more than regurgitated facts straight out of a bad after-school special. What little actual information there is comes mostly in the form of “expert” answers to questions posed by what we’re supposed to believe are actual college students. Actual college students whose burning questions run the whole gamut from “If I don’t want to drive drunk but have to get home, can I call the cops for a ride and not get in trouble?” to “If I want to drink but don’t want to gain weight, can I just skip dinner?”
Now, I don’t mean to belittle all the poor souls who are allegedly seriously seeking answers from MyStudentBody.com. Some of the questions are entirely valid, such as “Where can I go if I think I have a problem?” and “What are the signs that someone is becoming an alcoholic?” Of course, the validity of these very serious questions is dampened somewhat by the ridiculousness of the answers they receive. According to the experts, the students wondering where to go with their problems should probably try using the counseling resources available on their college campus. And the person wondering about signs of substance problems need only check to see if the person drinks more than they intend to, and has trouble cutting back on their boozing.
I’m sorry, but last time I checked, this year’s crop of incoming UCSB freshmen had an average high school GPA of 3.71 and an average SAT score of 1756 out of a possible 2400. Not too shabby. And certainly not so stupid that they couldn’t figure out that the best place to go for help would be the counseling center and the best way to tell if someone has a substance abuse problem is when they can’t stop using said substance. If MyStudentBody.comis providing anything of substance it’s the site’s production values – the graphics, sound effects and usability are all superlative, even if the information is simple and superfluous. My eleven year-old brother could probably recite most of what MyStudentBody.com is preaching, and he’s only got a few weeks of fifth-grade-level health class under his belt.
Presumably, by the time someone gets into a top-notch college like UCSB, they’ve surpassed the elementary health education level and could probably figure out that the best place to find counseling is at the – gasp! – counseling center.
I understand the university is just trying its darndest to make sure that all those cute little new freshmen make it through their college careers with their health – and the university’s reputation – relatively unscathed. And, I understand that the administration is at a loss as to how to effectively curb the campus’s reputation for revelry. But, requiring students to submit their personal information to a for-profit website with the ambiguous – at best – motivations of a big corporation behind it and useless-if-not-incredibly-insulting “information” at its core is not the way to do it. Not to mention the fact that this sets a dangerous precedent, making UCSB students’ ability to register for classes conditional on their participation in a corporate-run website, or their participation in a non-school-related entity at all.
Course registration should be dependent on whether students are accepted to the school, pay their exorbitant tuition fees each quarter and make sure their library books are in order, not on something completely unrelated to the college’s core purpose of providing an academic education. Alcohol and drug-related education and counseling definitely have their place on a college campus, but what a person ingests is ultimately up to them. Not to mention the fact that most experts agree people will not seek help for a substance abuse problem until they’re ready, and most college students agree that the kind of rudimentary “drinking causes problems” approach MyStudentBody.com takes won’t convince anyone to stop a substance abuse problem before it starts.
According to that same Nexus article, UCSB pays $5,500 per year for a subscription to the site and the university is estimating that 6,000 new students will be taking the quiz each year. That’s 6,000 private profiles packed to the brim with the personal preferences, proclivities and personalities of members of the very lucrative 18-25 year-old demographic.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist or a comic-book nut to imagine the ways a clever corporation could use that information to make a little extra cash on the side. And then, of course, there’s that $5,500. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The only way the administration is really going to change UCSB’s reputation is to stop perpetuating our party-school image by treating UCSB students like the dumb debauchers the school’s naysayers like to characterize us as. Take the focus, and the funding, off of insultingly ineffective initiatives like this mandate and put it towards improving the quality of our academics, making it more fun to attend sporting events, funding alternative programs students actually want to attend and focusing on the good things students do on-campus and not the partying they do off of it.
In the meantime, I suppose students will keep signing onto MyStudentBody.com, if only because they have to. If this was an episode of Turtles, the title characters would already have figured out that website is being used by an evil mastermind to manipulate the minds of innocent college coeds, and it would have been shut down before you could say “Turtle Power.”
Of course, this is the real world. And the purposes of the administration and the site’s creators are probably nowhere near as nefarious. And for now, the only evil thing the site is doing is distracting students from studying for midterms. And sucking money out of the constantly cash-strapped UC system. And boring a whole lot of perfectly intelligent students to tears.
But, barring the discovery of a band of genetically mutated turtles with a proclivity for pizza in Santa Barbara’s sewers, there’s not a whole lot we students can do about it. I guess we just have to sit tight and wait for the administration to come to their senses. In the meantime though, I’m keeping my investigative reporter skills handy. Someone has to call the administration out on its silliness – before we all end up in the proverbial sewer.