Rutgers has a mobile device privacy violation strategy

Rutgers decided to switch everyone over to an Office 365 system for email. All “official Rutgers business” has to be conducted through our new email accounts. If you try to sync mail to your phone, you are prompted to install a Microsoft app which will manage your account. According to the Rutgers Mobile Device Management Policy we “will be prompted by a notice that states administrators will be allowed to make a number of changes to your device but the University will not utilize those features as they are beyond policy.”

I Am Not A Lawyer, but it seems a little bad to sign a contract with someone who says “oh don’t worry about those clauses, we will never use them.” So what are we agreeing to let IT admins do?

What IT cannot see:

  • Call and web history
  • Location
  • Email and text messages
  • Contacts
  • Passwords
  • Calendar
  • Camera roll

What IT can see:

  • Model
  • Serial number
  • Operating system
  • App names
  • Owner
  • Device name

So apparently what apps you have is something that your boss should know about. I suppose you can construct a reason for that, but I don’t really know why it’s anyone’s business. I can see it as being rather dangerous — who are they sharing this information with? Also, Rutgers wants to:

  • Reset your device back to manufacturer’s default settings if the device is lost or stolen.
  • Require you to have a password or PIN on the device.
  • Require you to accept terms and conditions.

Hmmm, abstract “terms and conditions.” Ok then… the features they say are out of scope (for now) are:

  • Remove all installed company-related data and business apps. Your personal data and settings aren’t removed.
  • Enable or disable the camera on your device to prevent you from taking pictures of sensitive company data.
  • Enable or disable web browsing on your device.
  • Enable or disable backup to iCloud.
  • Enable or disable document sync to iCloud.
  • Enable or disable Photo Stream to iCloud.
  • Enable or disable data roaming on your device. If data roaming is allowed, you might incur roaming charges.
  • Enable or disable voice roaming on your device. If voice roaming is allowed, you might incur roaming charges.
  • Enable or disable automatic file synchronization while in roaming mode on your device. If automatic file synchronization is allowed, you might incur roaming charges.

Seems like a lot for the dubious value of checking my work email on my phone. I guess I have some startup funds that need spending. Perhaps I can get a “just for work” device that Rutgers can snoop on as much as they like.

Quantifying the professoriate

Faculty at Rutgers are unionized, and currently the union is trying to fight the university administration over their (secretive) use of Academic Analytics to rate the “scholarly productivity” of faculty and departments. For example, last year they produced a ranking of Rutgers departments (pdf). It’s so great to be reduced to a single number!

As the statistical adage goes, garbage in, garbage out, and it’s entirely unclear what AA is using to produce these numbers (although one could guess). It’s a proprietary system and the university refuses to give access to the “confidential innards” — perhaps they don’t want others to see how the sausage is made. If we take just one likely feature, impact factor, we can already see the poverty of single-index measures of productivity. Impact factor can vary widely across indexing systems: Scopus, Web of Knowledge, and Google all produce different numbers because they index different databases. At some point I went though and lumped together papers in my Google profile if they were the same result (e.g. a journal version of a conference paper) but then I was told that this is a bad idea, not because it would lower my impact factor (which it would), but because manipulating an index is bad form. If the index sucks, it’s the index-maker’s fault.

I wonder how many other universities are going through this process. Within one department the levels of “productivity” vary widely, and across disciplines the problem is only harder. The job faced by administrators is tough — how do they know where things can improve? But relying on opaque analytics is at best “statist-ism” and at worst reading entrails.

Personal versus work email

Rutgers is moving to a new email system based on Microsoft Office 365 and we’re required to conduct all University business through that emai address. This is all happening after a brief stint with Google Apps, around which I have built a lot of my work processes, so who knows how this will shake out. Our faculty union is concerned because Rutgers is exerting more corporate-like control over the email — they reserve the right to delete our emails without notification, and it’s unclear if they also reserve the right to read them. Time to adopt stronger encryption, methinks. In the light of email monitoring at the University of Wisconsin I imagine New Jersey may be headed down the same path.

All of this got me thinking about how I have tried over the last few years to keep separate work and personal emails, but that this is a bit of a new thing. Many people got their first “real” email address from college, and I sent all of my personal email from my MIT account. After college I developed an inconsisten approach to email: I used my forwarded my to my grad school account, used it as my login for Manuscript Central and reviewing sites, and even used it as my contact email for publications, since it was ostensibly “permanent.” However, in the last year I finally switched over and forwarded my college address to my personal address — as a student my email was personal, not professional, and I shouldn’t use that “identity” as my academic identity.

Every once in a while we get a story about inappropriate emails being sent from work addresses and I wonder if some of that comes from this blurry line between work and personal email addresses. How has that division evolved over time?

Bob Gallager on Shannon’s tips for research

One of the classes I enjoyed the most in undergrad was Bob Gallager’s digital communications class, 6.450. I was reminded of what an engaging lecturer he was yesterday when I attended the Bell Labs Shannon Celebration yesterday. Unfortunately, it being the last week of the semester, I could not attend today’s more technical talks. Gallager gave a nice concise summary of what he learned from Shannon about how to do good theory work:

  1. Simplify the problem
  2. Relate it to other problems
  3. Restate the problem in as many ways as possible
  4. Break the problem into pieces
  5. Avoid getting locked into thinking ruts
  6. Generalize

As he said, “it’s a process of doing research… each one [step] gives you a little insight.” It’s tempting, as a theorist, to claim that at the end of this process you’ve solved the “fundamental” problem, but Gallager admonished us to remember that the first step is to simplify, often dramatically. As Alfred North Whitehead said, we should “seek simplicity and distrust it.”

Family leave for graduate students: how does it work at your school?

I am trying to understand how family leave works for graduate students at different schools. More specifically, I am interested in how the finances for family leave work. Graduate students at Rutgers (as at many schools) are covered by a union contract. The contract specifies that in case of a pregnancy, the mother can take 6 weeks of paid leave recovery time plus an additional 8 weeks of paid leave family time. Non-carrying parents can take 8 weeks of paid leave for family time. While not generous by European standards, it’s better than what I would expect (ah, low expectations) here in the US.

This raises the question of how the university pays for the leave time. Students are either teaching or research assistants. 14 weeks off from teaching might include most of a semester, so the department needs a substitute. Trying to give the student an “easy TA” and still expecting them to come and teach when they are entitled to the leave is shady (although I have heard this idea floated). If they are paid through a grant, how should the leave time be charged?

I recently contacted authorities at Rutgers about this, and their response was not encouraging. Rutgers foists all charges off onto the department or grant/PI. If you are a TA and have a baby, the department is on the hook, financially, for finding a replacement. If you are a research assistant, they just charge the paid leave to the grant, as per the fringe rules in OMB Circular A-21.

I wrote a letter back about how disappointing this all is. The current system creates strong incentives for departments and PIs to deny appointments to students who have or may develop family obligations. This lack of support from the University could result in systematic discrimination against student parents. Whether examples of such discrimination exist is not clear, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Allocating the financial burden of leave to departments creates great inequities based on department size and budget, and not all departments can “close ranks” so easily.

For PIs covering students on grants with “deliverables,” the system encourages not supporting students on such grants. The rules in OMB Circular A-21 say that costs should be “distributed to all institutional activities in proportion to the relative amount of time or effort actually devoted by the employees.” It also implies that leave time should be charged via fringe benefits and not salary. It’s not entirely clear to be how a particular grant should be charged if a student participant goes on family leave, but the Rutgers policy seems to be to stick it to the PI.

The current situation leaves students in a predicament: when should they tell their advisor or department that they are pregnant? Many students are afraid of retribution or discrimination: I have heard from students that their friends say advisors “don’t like it when their students have kids.” The university’s policy on this issues only serves to legitimize these fears by creating uncertainty for them about whether they will be reappointed.

My question to the readers of this blog is this: how does your university manage paying for family leave for grad students?

LabTV, research stories, and video outreach

My lab was visited by Charlie Chalkin a few weeks ago. He was here to interview me and various students on our experiences in research for LabTV. LabTV was founded by Jay Walker and the NIH director Dr. Francis Collins with the aim of profiling NIH-funded researchers (as I now am). It was a great opportunity and a really short informal process, and I guess I can get some more hits from YouTube on the LabTV channel.

This experience got me thinking about how hard it is to connect with students at times. In particular, I think that many students don’t really see the process of how we got to where we are as their professors. Unless they have an academic in the family and also paid attention to their life story, they seem a bit mystified by it all. Obviously pop culture has a lot to do with this — movie and TV depictions of the professoriat are pretty far from reality. I have heard, however, from Ram Rajagopal that San Andreas has pretty much the most amazing interactions between professors and grad students. Heroism — that’s what we want.

But this experience got me thinking that departments might benefit from having short 2 minute profiles of their faculty members, but not from the technical achievements view. Instead, let them talk about what got them interested in the problems they are interested in, how they ended up in this position, and why they like the job. The answers may be surprising, but I think students might see a different side than they get in the lecture hall.


Like many, I was shocked to hear of Prashant Bhargava’s death. I just saw Radhe Radhe with Vijay Iyer’s live score at BAM, and Bhargava was there. I met him once, through Mimosa Shah.

Most people know Yoko Ono as “the person who broke up the Beatles” and think of her art practice as a joke. She’s a much more serious artist than that, and this article tries to lay it out a bit better.

Via Celeste LeCompte, a tool to explore MIT’s research finances. It’s still a work-in-progress. I wonder how hard it would be to make such a thing for Rutgers.

In lieu of taking this course offered by Amardeep Singh, I could at least read the books on the syllabus I guess.

Muscae volitantes, or floaty things in your eyes.