Sandvig, Dworkin receive 2023 public engagement awards

The recipients of the 2023 presidential award for public engagement-University of Michigan professors Aaron Dworkin and Christian Sandvig -have made far-reaching impacts through their work in music and computer algorithm auditing, respectively.

Dworkin, professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship and former dean at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is receiving the President’s Award for National and State Leadership. He founded the Institute for Poetjournalism and the Sphinx Organization, and has helped aspiring artists and pushed the boundaries of traditional arts education by bringing leadership and entrepreneurship into the mix.

Sandvig, the H. Marshall McLuhan Collegiate Professor of Digital Media, is receiving the President’s Award for Public Impact. He pushed for a change in federal law about computers-freeing researchers and journalists to investigate the dangers of social media and AI artificial intelligence without criminal penalty.

"I am impressed that the University of Michigan is willing to define success in this way, and they are willing to say that public service is an important criterion of performance. We’re a public university, and service is our business, and so let’s reward people for doing public service,- said Sandvig, who is a professor at the School of Information, Stamps School of Art & Design, and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts’ Department of Communication and Media and Digital Studies Institute.

The awards given by President Santa J. Ono recognize the recipients’ demonstrated commitment to public service, contributions to significantly impact society through national and state leadership, and efforts to address the challenges communities face every day.

"I was just deeply humbled,- Dworkin said. "Obviously, there are thousands of faculty who are doing extraordinary work regionally and nationally, and so I was honored not only for this work that I’ve been doing to be recognized, but also for the statement of its impact in the greater arts ecosystem.-

Dworkin was nominated for the award by several SMTD colleagues including Ken Fischer, lecturer; Eugene Rogers, associate professor of music; and Mark Clague, associate dean and professor of music; as well as Marcus Collins, clinical assistant professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business.

"Beyond academia, Dworkin has emerged as a prominent national leader, advocating for diversity and inclusivity in the arts,- they wrote in his nomination letter. "His efforts align with the University of Michigan’s commitment to holistic education and the development of well-rounded individuals poised to make a positive impact on society.-

Dworkin launched the Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Career Empowerment & Leadership (EXCEL) Lab at SMTD to bring leadership and entrepreneurial skills to arts students.

"In an era marked by rapid technological advancements and shifting societal norms, he has demonstrated a forward-thinking approach as an artist, as a ’poetjournalist’ with national acclaim, and as the foremost national leader on diversity in the arts,- they wrote.

His national impact includes the work of the Sphinx Organization, which addresses the underrepresentation of people of color in classical music. It reaches millions of people through its national programming and nearly 300 institutional partnerships around the country. He was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council for the Arts on which he still serves, and has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His statewide impact includes serving on the boards of the Michigan Council for Arts and Culture, Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Michigan Theater and Motown Museum. He is the Poetjournalist-in-Residence for the city of Ann Arbor’s bicentennial, and serves in various roles with the Wright Museum in Detroit, Complexions Contemporary Ballet Company, Shar Music and Fisher Foundation.

"I think it’s so easy for us in the world of academia to go inward and be insular, for many of the right reasons, if you will. But sometimes that may limit the impact that we can have,- Dworkin said. "And so the ability to collaborate and network and to take the work that we do and have it serve others can be really powerful.-

Sandvig’s nominators included Mark Ackerman, the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Human-Computer Interaction and professor at the School of Information, College of Engineering and Medical School, and Susan Douglas, the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

They noted that in 2012, Sandvig had concerns that the computer algorithms at companies like Google and Facebook might be secretly favoring some content over others, and that this might be impossible to detect. As a response, Sandvig and collaborators developed a research strategy called "algorithm auditing,- sending false information to online platforms in order to detect algorithmic misbehavior by analyzing their response.

He was warned that investigating corporate algorithms would run afoul of the U.S. federal anti-hacking law. Dubbed "the worst law in technology- by legal scholars, it featured draconian penalties, arbitrarily applied.

"A bunch of researchers realized that this is out of hand and we have to stop it. It’s definitely not just me. But I was lucky in that the University of Michigan was willing to support me in potentially admitting to a felony,- Sandvig said. "I wrote a paper that said that this law was stupid, and the ACLU called and asked if we could challenge the law together.-

Sandvig became the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, based in part on his research. Due to the technological questions involved, Sandvig, who is not a lawyer, was given an unusual opportunity to help write the legal briefs for the case. A key argument posited that under the First Amendment, everyone has a legal right to provide false information to computers and online platforms, especially as a part of research to investigate civil rights violations.

"Over the next eight years, Sandvig used personal funds to travel to court in Washington, D.C., and to travel around the country promoting the case. He was cautioned that this legal challenge was essentially admitting to a felony and could have serious consequences if he lost,- his nominators wrote.

He prevailed in 2020 when a federal judge ruled that creating false user accounts for research could not be criminalized. Although Sandvig’s own research focused on civil rights, the ruling protects vital academic work, public interest nonprofits, investigative journalists and ordinary internet users. The U.S. Supreme Court supported Sandvig’s position in 2021, and the Justice Department announced in 2022 that it would revise its charging guidelines for hacking, referencing Sandvig’s work.

"Sandvig deserves this award for his courageous and spirited defense of civil rights that changed the law of the United States,- his nominators wrote.

The ruling helps computer security experts and investigative journalists, but it also helps anyone who has ever played a game of solitaire on their work computer without permission. All of these people can now avoid being charged with a federal crime for "hacking,- Sandvig said.

"One way to justify public higher education in this country is to show that it solves problems, and it produces things that help people. That includes education, but it also includes other forms of impact, in this case, law and policy,- he said.

Sandvig also co-founded and directs the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing. ESC is a research center and a collective of scholars committed to feminist, justice-focused, inclusive and interdisciplinary approaches to computing.

"There is a hunger among our students and faculty for tangible public engagement. That’s what they want. They don’t want knowledge for its own sake,- Sandvig said. "They want to understand how the knowledge they’re gaining is going to do something in the world.-