October 3, 2010

All Cards on the Table

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The recent news that the names and addresses of hundreds of thousands of Cornell alumni had been released to Chase Bank as part of a $6.3 million deal with the Cornell Alumni Association raises numerous issues involving the protection of privacy and the mission of the CAA. Understandably, many alumni were taken aback by the revelation that their personal information would be disseminated without their explicit knowledge. But ultimately the CAA signed this contract in order to increase the breadth and depth of the services it offers alumni, and while the sharing of private information between companies may feel like an unsavory business practice, it is increasingly becoming a normal arrangement between universities and credit card companies. However, the CAA should work to increase transparency so that alumni are not left in the dark about who has access to their contact information.Credit card marketing schemes such as affinity cards (credit cards bearing pictures of McGraw Tower or Willard Straight, for example) carry some connotations of disreputable business practices; and as of February, when the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act was signed into law, it is now often illegal to market directly to students. This is actually a bright spot on Cornell’s record: the University never provided student contact information to Chase Bank, even before it was illegal. But alumni are adults, and, as Cornell graduates, hopefully able to easily recognize even the cleverest of marketing tactics.Furthermore, all the money that the CAA made off the arrangement was used for the benefit of the alumni themselves. A robust, productive alumni network is one of Cornell’s greatest assets, and the CAA is responsible for cultivating that network however it sees fit.So while the contract with Chase is itself not as tasteless as it might initially seem, the concerns about violations of privacy are legitimate and must be addressed. Like every Cornell-related entity, the CAA should strive for transparency and fully disclose the terms of major financial initiatives such as this contract with Chase. The problem is not that the alumni association used their extensive database of alumni contact information to attain a lucrative contract, the problem is that the CAA failed to make it clear to alumni that it would be sharing their private information with a third party. The CAA has the right to use its all of its resources and assets to increase its operating budget, but when they begin using contact information as a bargaining chip, the alumni have the right to know, and the CAA has the obligation to tell them.The importance of a strong alumni network to Cornell cannot be understated. The University’s size and diverse colleges and programs allow alumni to network in every level of every industry. Indeed the promised vitality of this alumni base is one of Cornell’s most potent recruiting tools. The CAA is an important part of strengthening and expanding this network.