Big Brother: College Edition

When Matthew Wolfsen, a student activist at Georgia Tech, asked the university for all its records on him, he got back two binders of documents.

Some of it was expected — his high school transcript, for instance.

He also found that administrators kept tabs on his political affiliation and a trip he took to Washington in July.

“Continuing to monitor this student’s social media accounts,” Steven Norris, a social media manager for Georgia Tech, said in one email reviewed by Inside Higher Ed. The email contained details about a Facebook group Wolfsen had joined and a screenshot from his Facebook account about a meeting of the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents Wolfsen planned to attend. The materials were sent to several leaders of the institution’s communications team.

Wolfsen has since widely publicized these administrators’ emails about him — including some from President G. P. Peterson — which were unearthed in his records requests. He declared on Facebook that Georgia Tech had spied on him using taxpayer dollars.

While experts said in interviews that colleges and universities often rely on social media channels for the pulse of campus, they were unaware of any cases in which an institution had in essence profiled a student — raising questions about the appropriateness of Georgia Tech’s social media practices.

In a statement, Georgia Tech said it uses social media as one of several tools to engage with our community. “Our community includes current and prospective students, faculty and staff, parents, alumni and partners in government and industry.”

“Good social media engagement includes listening and often responding to those who publicly mention Georgia Tech,” the statement reads. “This is a routine practice among our peers in higher education, as well as organizations and corporations with large social media programs.”

Wolfsen first filed his request directly with Peterson a little more than a week after he had met with the president and a couple of state lawmakers in September. He says that, during the meeting, Peterson implied Wolfsen had called to campus the individuals who set fire to a police vehicle during a September protest over the death of Scout Schultz, who was shot by a Georgia Tech police officer. Georgia Tech representatives did not answer a question whether Peterson had made such a remark.

Suspicious that Peterson had badmouthed him, Wolfsen wanted his student records, information that is generally confidential under federal law, but that can be accessed by the student to whom it pertains.

Wolfsen has been a forceful and vocal student activist, involved with the Progressive Student Alliance, an unofficial campus group formed primarily to fight against a piece of controversial state legislation that would have mandated colleges report sexual assaults to law enforcement, an ill-advised practice, survivor advocates have said. House Bill 51 ultimately failed in the Georgia General Assembly.

More than a month after his request, Wolfsen dropped by the university’s legal services office to pick up his binders — and he said he was surprised by the volume of paper in them.

Flipping through the binders in his apartment, Wolfsen saw screenshots of his personal Facebook page and a tweet he had reposted from the Progressive Student Alliance Twitter account.

Norris, the social media manager, in one August email to multiple campus administrators laid out a snapshot of Wolfsen’s social media presence. Norris noted in the email that Wolfsen is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Atlanta branch and that Wolfsen intended to attend the group’s August convention, and that Wolfsen moderates a Facebook group called “Students Against HB 51.”

Norris also described a trip that Wolfsen took to D.C. on July 31 in which Wolfsen met with the staffs of multiple lawmakers and Candice Jackson, the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights.

All this information was pulled from public posts. The university did not answer questions about how much time Norris spends reviewing students’ social media, but said in its statement, “Monitoring of all Georgia Tech mentions in media and social media platforms represents a small part of the media relations team’s responsibilities.” Representatives did not answer specific questions posed by a reporter, including whether this type of tracking of students was a common practice.

According to the statement, Georgia Tech “noticed” posts Wolfsen shared in which he either tagged or mentioned the institution.