FBI Trying To Repair Image On College Campuses

WASHINGTON (AP) – The idea of academics collaborating with the FBI might once have aroused loud complaints on some campuses where agents had spied on student protesters and government institutions were viewed with mistrust.

But when FBI Director Robert Mueller announced he had recruited 17 university presidents to offer advice on the culture of higher education, there were a few laudatory e-mails and a couple of mentions in campus newspapers, but mostly silence, according to several school presidents.

The National Security Higher Education Advisory Board planned to hold its first meeting in Washington. Set to attend are representatives from schools across the political spectrum, from the more liberal University of Wisconsin and its history of protest to the more conservative Texas A&M University with its Corps of Cadets.’

The Board includes former CIA Director Robert Gates, Texas A&M’s president, and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a member of the Sept. 11 commission and president of the New School University in New York.

“ The times have changed and they’ve changed in this case for the better,” said board member Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania.

“ The idea that we can sit down at a table and have a true dialogue which is open and aimed at mutual understanding across differences is terrific,” Gutmann said. “We’re under no illusion that we’ll agree on everything, but we do agree on the importance of reaching some common understanding.”

The group’s chairman is Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University. Spanier said much of the change described by Gutmann dates from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“ The university community generally has come to feel that they need to be part of the solution,” Spanier said.

Gates recalled going to see Vice President Dick Cheney and Andrew Card, President Bush’s chief of staff, to discuss problems foreign students were having obtaining visas after the attacks.

“ I made the comment that this isn’t the 60s and 70s. The universities want to be helpful. We understand the threats to the country and, unlike in the past, there is a real opportunity for cooperation that is beneficial to both sides,” Gates said.

The FBI has described the board’s mission as offering advice about the traditions of openness, academic freedom and international collaboration. Mueller has said the board also could serve as a recruitment tool for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

The presidents see the exchange as an opportunity to press their own concerns about the treatment of foreign students, the international exchange of technology and security issues at laboratories that work with anthrax and other deadly substances.

Yet the terrorist attacks have not completely rehabilitated the FBI’s image on college campuses, several presidents and historians said.

The bureau was badly damaged in the 1970s by revelations about its Cointelpro program, begun under Edgar J. Hoover and aimed at disrupting civil rights, student and dissident groups.

Even since Sept. 11, civil libertarians and student activists have voiced concerns that the bureau again is trying to stifle lawful protest, and that the FBI’s presence on campuses could chill open exchanges.

They point to some provisions of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, including one that allows the FBI to obtain library records, and to bureau documents that detail monitoring of anti-war groups and enhanced cooperation between the FBI and campus police.

“ The FBI does have a public relations problem that stems from its past history and extends to concerns raised by federal surveillance policy post-9/11, including the ability to access library records,” said Athan Theoharris, a Marquette University historian who has written extensively on the FBI.

John Wiley, the University of Wisconsin’s chancellor, said distrust of law enforcement is most pronounced among the many foreign students on his campus. “They typically arrive from places where the police are not viewed as being there to protect you or someone you typically turn to for help,” Wiley said.

There were mild protests at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass., in 2003 when a campus officer assigned to an FBI task force interviewed an Iraqi-born professor about his political views. The FBI would not give any details about the episode, and the professor said the questioning was brief and nonthreatening.