May/June 2000 // Virtual University
Trust, Privacy, and the Digital University
by Gary M. Gatien
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Gary M. Gatien "Trust, Privacy, and the Digital University" The Technology Source, May/June 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

"Organizations today have to be based on trust. How many people can you know well enough to trust? Probably 50 at most."

— Charles Handy, author, management philosopher, and consultant to multinational corporations (Rapoport, 1994).

The Digital University

Broadly speaking, the words "digital university" refer to the successful migration of many key activities from paper-based methods to digital methods. A successful migration means not only that universities will be able to improve the means by which they do things now, but also that they and their constituencies will have opportunities to do things that they could not do before.

While this migration includes the assimilation of e-commerce (the buying and selling of products and services electronically) into our institutions, it also includes many other "e-activities." We are migrating to a digital world that comprises, for example:

  • online applications and payment of admissions fees;
  • campus-wide, integrated administrative computing systems and, eventually, integrated administrative and academic computing systems;
  • online purchasing and loan programs;
  • online recruiting of students, staff, and faculty;
  • Web access and interaction with personal (including medical) information;
  • multi-institutional and consortia-based educational models;
  • Web-based courses and testing;
  • virtual communities;
  • online, collaborative research;
  • online auctions of university intellectual property;
  • digital library resources; and
  • electronic grant and development initiatives.

As we migrate, we fundamentally change the way we fulfill our mission. In the future, our constituents will have quick, electronic, and often interactive access to a variety of institutional data and information. Trust will often be based on electronic interactions rather than face-to-face meetings or personal relationships. If we are successful, our institutions will continue to enjoy the trust of our many constituents while remaining competitive in an increasingly global and multi-faceted higher education environment.

The Importance of Trust

In today’s evolving digital universities, the key to success is "trust." Trust is fundamental for many reasons. First, the rapid pace of technology innovation can mean that technological change often takes place before we understand its potential implications. For example, what impact, if any, do the hundreds of commercially-sponsored campus Web sites and "smart cards" (Van Der Werf, 1999) have on our responsibilities under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (NCES, 1998; CAUSE, 1997)? How—and how well—are we protecting faculty and institutional intellectual properties, including course notes, syllabi, and research on Web sites? From an institutional perspective, how can we best address intellectual property ownership and royalty issues and manage potential conflicts of interest? Consider the following:

There is no model for migration that we can follow. In the area of distance education alone, some higher education institutions have entered into a variety of partnerships with for-profit companies, some have joined non-profit educational consortia, some have done both of these and are also delivering courses directly to students, and others have formed for-profit subsidiaries. Faculty are breaking new ground outside of their institutions (Marcus, 1999). Furthermore, the unique circumstances at each of our institutions—including our different missions, strengths and weaknesses, funding levels, cultures, concerns, constituencies, tolerances for risk, infrastructures, and approaches to outsourcing—may preclude the development of a single model that will work for all of us.

There is no coherent set of laws, regulations, and policies on the handling of digital data and information, nor rules for enforcement, that have withstood (or not been amended by) diverse challenges over time. In fact, these rules are just now being developed at the state, national, and international levels among governments, interest and advocacy groups, and trade organizations.

We are facing issues that we have never had to face before. For example, customer "profiling" (Dembeck, 1999) and "targeted marketing" (Tedeschi, 1999) were virtually impossible, or at least much less sophisticated, prior to the digital revolution. Today, a person’s offline and online buying habits can be merged. Private data can be obtained easily (Penenberg, 1999). A vendor can interrupt students working at their computers through dinner by sending them a pop-up window offering to sell them pizza (Woody, 1999).

When things go wrong online, it is the credibility of institutions that's at stake, not just the reputations of registrars, accounts offices, schools or colleges, or individual units. In industry parlance, it’s our "brand name" that is at risk.

Finally, trust is key because a successful migration to a digital university requires that we build new, "electronic relationships." In some cases, we will want to build communities through viable, long-term relationships with people that we have not met face-to-face. We will need partnerships with all of our constituencies to share risk and reward so that we may all take advantage of the opportunities that technology offers.

The Charles Handy quotation that opens this article helps to put into perspective the scope and complexity of the migration that we face. That’s because we need to build trust not simply among 50 people, but rather among hundreds, even thousands, of people: a highly diverse, global audience that includes faculty, students, and staff as well as parents, alumni, donors, sponsors, vendors, partners, collaborators, governments, and educational institutions.

Two recent surveys of e-commerce—an area in which traditional institutions of higher education lag way behind businesses, government, commercial education providers, and society in general—highlight the importance of trust. Jupiter Communications found that 64% of survey respondents do not trust a Web site to offer privacy even if there is a privacy policy posted on the site. Jupiter also projected that privacy issues could put an $18 billion dent in the $40 billion e-commerce revenue the communications firm predicts will accumulate by 2002. According to Michael Slack, a Jupiter analyst, "It’s not just about having legislation or privacy policy postings. There is a general nervousness about giving personal and credit card information on the Net" ("Industry Privacy Failures," 1999).

Similarly, NFO Interactive found consumer concern about the safekeeping of online personal information to be the main reason people chose not to shop online. Consumers said that what would most entice them to shop at a Web site was "trust that the site would keep personal information private" ("Industry Privacy Failures," 1999). Another survey suggests that to address trust successfully, we need to explore this issue with our constituents in more detail than we have done so far (Cranor, et al, 1993). Business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce is also struggling to ensure trust and minimize litigation (Hicks, 1999). It’s no wonder that privacy is reportedly becoming the new "e-industry;" some experts anticipate that security lawsuits will replace Y2K litigation over the next few years (Mosquera, 1999).

Selected Actions To Help Ensure a Successful Migration

While each of our institutions will have to develop and refine these actions according to individual circumstances, below are some suggestions for the mission, guidelines, and action steps of a migrating institution.

Mission: To build an integrated, proactive, extended enterprise of education, knowledge discovery, co-invention, and community outreach.

Guidelines: First, ensure that needs, desires, policies, and concerns drive technology selections, not the other way around. Second, within institutions, work cooperatively across functional areas (e.g., administrative, academic, research, etc.). Third, work collaboratively with peer institutions. Fourth and finally, provide Web-based, constituency access via an interface that is easy to use, easy for users to customize, consistent in its functions, robust in terms of the data and information it provides, secure, and ADA compliant.

Selected Actions: The National Center for Education Statistics recommends that higher-education executives raise the visibility of electronic privacy and security issues and appoint a campus leader for institution-wide privacy and security policy (NCES, 1998). Others recommend improved privacy and security education across campuses. For example, a 1998 FBI/Computer Security Institute survey found that the average loss for security breaches ranged from $2.8 million for "unauthorized insider access" to just $86,000 for "system penetration by an outsider" (Zimits & Montano, 1998).

Not all data and information require the same levels and kinds of protection. Moreover, resources are not infinite. Consensus-building among constituencies is one way to help determine priorities.


Higher education institutions are becoming digital universities. To migrate successfully, we need to address proactively the role and importance of an "old-fashioned" value, namely trust, in the digital world. We must proceed with a clear mission and guidelines and take concrete actions based on collaborations with our constituencies. We will likely face some common technical, policy, privacy, security, and legal issues. However, we will likely find as well that a successful migration requires unique approaches and solutions.


Cause Task Force (1997). Privacy and the handling of student information in the electronic networked environments of colleges and universities. Retrieved June 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Cranor, L., Reagle, J., & Ackerman, M. (1993, April). Beyond concern: Understanding net users’ attitudes about online privacy. Retrieved December 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Dembeck, C. (1999, July 7). Is it customer profiling or harassment? E-Commerce Times. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: viewpoint/view-990707.shtml

Hicks, M. (1999, October 25). A matter of trust. PC Week Online. Retrieved November 1999 from the World Wide Web: stories/news/0,4153,2376988,00.html

Industry privacy failures hurting e-commerce, latest surveys show. (1999, September 9). Privacy Times. Retrieved 10 September 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Marcus, A. (1999, November 22). Why Harvard Law wants to rein in one of its star professors. The Wall Street Journal, pp. A1, A10.

Mosquera, M. (1999, November 17). Security lawsuits to replace Y2K litigation. TechWeb. Retrieved November 1999 from the World Wide Web:

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Penenberg, A. L. (1999, November 29). The end of privacy. Forbes. Retrieved December 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Rapoport, C. (1994, October 31). Charles Handy sees the future. Fortune, pp. 155-156, 158, 162, 164, 168.

Tedeschi, R. (1999, May 10). Targeted marketing confronts privacy concerns. The New York Times on the Web. Retrieved 23 June 1999 from the World Wide Web: cyber/commerce/10commerce.html

Van Der Werf, M. (1999, September 3). A vice president from the business world brings a new bottom line to Penn. Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. A72-75.

Woody, T. (1999, August 6). Back to school in the Internet economy. The Industry Standard. Retrieved 6 August 1999 from the World Wide Web:,1449,5812,00.html.

Zimits, E., & Montano, C. (1998, April). Public key infrastructure: Unlocking the internet's economic potential. iStory 3(2). Retrieved June 1999 from the World Wide Web:

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