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Your College Exploits: Now Public Record

2009 May 24
by Richard N. Landers
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According to this recent article in the Chronicle, it has become common for college newspapers to put their full archives online, and as a result, anything you did in college that anyone ever wrote even decades ago may now be Google-able.  The examples from the article of people affected by this:

  • a reporter who graduated from Penn State being characterized by an article she wrote in college about the “hook-up culture” on campus
  • a Marine who graduated from Emory who wrote about the war and domestic and economic policy (his quote: As a rule, politics and the military don’t mix”)
  • a lawyer who graduated from Cornell who had been charged with burglary while a student (although, it seems, not convicted)
  • a current student at Macalester who made comments on underage drinking
  • a variety of seniors at the University of Pittsburgh who had been featured in the paper’s summaries of police activities, documenting underage drinking, public intoxication, and fake ID usage

There are several perspectives on this, many of which conflict.

  1. Personal Responsibility: If you don’t want the world to know, don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your next employer to read about.
  2. Personal Privacy: It’s your right to keep your activities private.
  3. Organizational Responsibility: Responsible companies should put this information in its proper context when making hiring decisions.  For example, a report of underage drinking might matter in some professions (e.g. politician) more than others (e.g. sequential artist).
  4. Journalistic Integrity: These are real, honest newspapers, even if they are college-sponsored.  Journalistic integrity does still mean something, so many papers are reluctant or unwilling to pull or alter stories unless something contained within them is factually inaccurate.
  5. Alumni Relations: Today’s graduates provide tomorrow’s donations.  It doesn’t pay (in several senses) to alienate your student body.

I’m commenting on it here because I think it continues a discussion we had here earlier.  Should organizations use this information?  I suppose my stance is the same as my comments before: just because Candidate A has a report on him in College Town Gazette doesn’t mean that Candidate B didn’t do something much worse that you don’t know about.  Hiring on information for some applicants and not others is also dangerous to organizations: you could be introducing adverse impact (unintentionally biased hiring on protected classes).  And let’s not forget the meta-question here: is it ethical to hire people based on what they do in their free time?

For the job applicant, this is little comfort.  There’s no way to really know if a particular recruiter is looking you up on Google or not.  Such a practice is not (yet) illegal, and I can tell you from experience that when you have a wide selection of very similar applicants, it’s difficult not to take 5 little seconds out of your day to search for them, in an effort to differentiate them somehow.  So for now, taking the approach of personal responsibility or perhaps making a plea to the current editor of the paper are your only real options to safeguard your reputation.  And I imagine that as more and more people make information about them publicly available, this problem will only worse.

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