A new book by Public Policy Professor John Villasenor examines the dominant belief system on American campuses, its uncompromising enforcement through social media and the consequences for higher education. In “Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education,” Villasenor and co-author Ilana Redstone argue that higher education is being reshaped by a campus culture that is increasingly intolerant to diverse views and open inquiry, a trend that is exacerbated by the narrow lens of social media. The book, which will be released Oct. 15, highlights a newly emerged environment in higher education that forecloses entire lines of research, entire discussions and entire ways of conducting classroom teaching. Following their critiques of the well-intentioned unwritten rules about identity on college campuses, Villasenor and Redstone present a set of recommendations to build a new campus climate that would be more tolerant toward diverse perspectives and open inquiry. The book has garnered praise from scholars including University of Pennsylvania Professor Jonathan Zimmerman, who said, “The real danger to higher education isn’t a cabal of jack-booted censors but the much subtler forces that discourage us from critiquing our dominant assumptions about multiculturalism, discrimination and identity.” Cal State Los Angeles Sociology Professor Bradley Campbell said “Unassailable Ideas” is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the serious threat to free speech and academic freedom at American colleges and universities.
Public Policy Professor John Villasenor wrote a commentary for the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing for instructional collaboration among colleges as online classes continue into the fall 2020 term due to COVID-19 concerns. At the same time, “colleges are facing unprecedented budget shortfalls,” he noted. Using the University of California system as an example, Villasenor suggested campuses with similar academic calendars could increase course availability for students and lower overall costs for colleges. “Large-scale intercollege instructional collaboration would benefit students by providing them with more options in choosing their classes. It would also broaden the reach of colleges by expanding the pool of potential students for each course, thereby reducing the chance that a course would be underenrolled,” he wrote. Villasenor cautioned that such sharing arrangements would not come without challenges, but added, “The biggest challenge of all would probably be overcoming the inevitable institutional resistance to such pooling of instructional and virtual classroom resources.”
Public Policy Professor John Villasenor interviewed UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh for a podcast episode on “Civil Liberties in an Epidemic.” The episode, part of a series from the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy, was featured on Volokh’s blog for Reason magazine. Villasenor raised questions about border controls, legal bans on nonessential medical procedures and restrictions on religious assembly. The two also discussed location tracking on mobile phones to enable the government to monitor virus contamination, which raises concerns about privacy as well as unintended uses of the information. Volokh said that the 1905 Supreme Court decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts has come to be “understood not just as a precedent in favor of compulsory vaccination laws, but also as a precedent in favor of other restraints on liberty.” He noted that some restraints that would not be constitutionally permissible in normal times are permissible within the context of the pandemic.
Public Policy Professor John Villasenor wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education recommending that colleges and universities prepare for the possibility of remote learning in the fall term. The rapid spread of COVID-19 forced many universities to make a sudden switch to remote classes this spring. Planning for fall is overshadowed by continued uncertainty about the duration of the coronavirus emergency and whether it will be advisable for students to return to campus. Villasenor pondered whether “many [students] will elect to sit out the fall term rather than spend many thousands of dollars” on video-based remote learning if it extends into the next academic year. He urged institutions to survey students and their families to collect “critical data regarding enrollment, impacting everything from tuition revenue to class offerings to assignment of teaching assistants.” Villasenor also called on colleges to consider financial assistance to families hit hard by the pandemic.
Public Policy Professor John Villasenor co-authored an article with UC Berkeley Professor Rebecca Wexler describing the dangers of new data privacy laws and their unintended contribution to wrongful convictions. They explain how the “growing volume of data gathered and stored by mobile network providers, social media companies, and location-based app providers has quite rightly spurred interest in updating privacy laws.” However, these laws often favor prosecutors in legal cases, making it easier for them to deploy state power to search for and seize data, while defense attorneys struggle to access the same data using subpoenas. The article for the Brookings Institution’s TechTank blog describes a “fundamental asymmetry”: “While law enforcement can compel the production of data that can help establish guilt, a defendant will have a much harder time compelling the production of data that establish innocence.” The authors recommend drafting laws that accommodate “the legitimate needs of both law enforcement and defense investigations.”
In an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, John Villasenor, professor of public policy, electrical engineering and law, explained why he does not allow his classes to be recorded. Villasenor acknowledged that recording a lecture could be beneficial for a number of legitimate reasons, including helping out students who miss class due to illness. However, he said he is more concerned with protecting his students’ privacy. “A highly interactive classroom should be a space beyond the reach of the digital panopticon,” Villasenor said. Recording can chill classroom discourse, with students perhaps choosing to speak more cautiously. This can rob students of “the opportunity to engage in dialogue with fellow students who hold perspectives that, while legitimate and valuable to consider, might not fit neatly with their own views.” Especially in smaller, highly engaged classrooms, the convenience of a recorded lecture is outweighed by the cost of a diminished learning environment, Villasenor argued.
Public Policy Professor John Villasenor joined CNN London to discuss the growing threat of deepfake videos, which use artificial intelligence to alter images, swap faces or edit voice audio to create very realistic footage. In one example, a deepfake video was released showing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appearing to endorse his political rival, Jeremy Corbyn. Villasenor explained that digital misinformation is a real concern in today’s political environment. “We can expect both here in the United States and in other countries that the technology that can be used for these deepfakes will, in some cases, be used in an attempt to influence elections,” he said. Villasenor explained that there are “subtle differences between the audio and the mouth movements, but you have to be looking carefully.” Moving forward, he urges people to “recalibrate their expectations” and unlearn the habit of assuming that what we see on video is always true.
John Villasenor, professor of public policy, electrical engineering and management, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the potential challenges of 5G cybersecurity. While 5G is expected to be 100 times faster than 4G, enabling new technologies and strengthening security, Villasenor remained cautious. He predicted that some cybersecurity risks and vulnerabilities will not be addressed right away. “I’m not very confident that we’re going to be on top of these problems,” he said. “People only get cybersecurity right after they get it wrong. We’re going to learn the hard way, and hopefully the mistakes will not be particularly costly and harmful.”
John Villasenor, professor of public policy, electrical engineering and management, wrote a report for the Brookings Institution about the intersection between artificial intelligence (AI) and product liability law. While AI-based systems can make decisions that are more objective, consistent and reliable than those made by humans, they sometimes make mistakes, Villasenor wrote. Product liability law can help clarify who is responsible for AI-induced harms, he added. “AI systems don’t simply implement human-designed algorithms. Instead, they create their own algorithms — sometimes by revising algorithms originally designed by humans, and sometimes completely from scratch. This raises complex issues in relation to products liability, which is centered on the issue of attributing responsibility for products that cause harms,” he wrote. “Companies need to bear responsibility for the AI products they create, even when those products evolve in ways not specifically desired or foreseeable by their manufacturers,” he argued.
John Villasenor, professor of public policy, electrical engineering and management, wrote an article for the Chronicle for Higher Education about the importance of preparing college students for an AI future. Artificial intelligence will have a profound and transformative impact — one that college students today have the opportunity to shape, Villasenor said. He advocated for a wide range of disciplines to incorporate issues surrounding artificial intelligence into their curricula. “We need philosophers, lawyers and ethicists to help navigate the complex questions that will arise as we give machines more power to make decisions,” he wrote. In addition, political scientists, urban planners, economists, public policy experts, climate scientists and physicians are among those who should harness the power of artificial intelligence to effect positive social change — and ensure that the technology is not hijacked by malicious actors.