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A University of California, San Diego professor whose cell phone tool to help migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border made headlines four months ago is being investigated by the university for that and another project he developed as part of his research.

In December, UCSD visual arts professor Ricardo Dominguez was barraged by media attention after he and several colleagues announced a cell phone GPS tool designed to help migrants find water stations during remote desert crossings.

The tool, Dominguez said, was developed as an art project with practical applications. In the process, he said, it was intended to stimulate conversation about death at the border.

And it did. Humanitarian activists praised it as a life-saving tool, and some anti-immigration activists challenged its legality by claiming it violated federal law that prohibits helping undocumented immigrants enter the country. Politicians, including U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, called for the university to pull funding for the Transborder Immigrant Tool.

As recently as last month, Hunter was joined by Republican representatives Brian Bilbray and Darrell Issa in asking university Chancellor Marye Anne Fox to provide information on the tool’s funding.

In a letter to the chancellor, the representatives said the project appeared to be “a troubling use of taxpayer dollars” that were “being used in an effort to actively help people subvert federal law.”

University administrators have been investigating to determine, Dominguez said in an interview, whether a $5,000 grant that funded the project had been appropriately spent.

Last month, the university launched a second investigation focusing on Dominguez’s work in the field of electronic civil disobedience.

On March 4, Dominguez organized an online sit-in against the Office of the President of the UC system, in solidarity with statewide student protests that day against UC budget cuts.

By using a web browser and visiting a special URL students participated in an online protest that redirected them to the president’s website, Dominguez said. By using the browser’s refresh button repeatedly, he said, the protesters “participated in the equivalent of an offline sit in,” immobilizing the site temporarily. “It doesn’t take down his office, but it is like making it very difficult for the president to get to his desk.”

During the protest, university administrators disabled the server hosting Dominguez’s sit-in. A few days later, he received an e-mail from an assistant chancellor informing him of an investigation into the protest to determine whether criminal charges were appropriate. And last week, two university police officers questioned Dominguez at his campus office, he said.

Dominguez is accused of using university servers to create a “denial of service attack” against the Office of the President’s computer servers. Such attacks attempt to disable a targeted server by bogging them down with request for information.

The March 4 sit-in, Dominguez said, did not access the office’s server, but redirected participants who entered the sit-in’s webpage to the university president’s, using simple computing code to refresh the internet browser multiple times and slow its ability to process the requests.

Campus police and administration officials would not comment on the investigations or say what possible criminal charges might be considered, saying the investigations were ongoing.

A representative at the Office of the President said he could not comment before consulting the handling attorney, who was unavailable this week.

The investigations, Dominguez said, have slowed progress on the Transborder Immigrant Tool and raised questions within his department over the freedom of researchers at UCSD to conduct the work they were hired to do.

The irony in the university’s investigation against him, Dominguez said, is that he is being scrutinized for the work that was cited in the decision to grant him tenure there less than a year ago.

Dominguez, who was once a practicing artist in New York City, arrived as an assistant professor at UCSD in 2005.

He had made his career researching what he calls “electronic civil disobedience,” which recreates in virtual spaces like the internet the popular form of sit-in protests used by students and activists for decades.

Dominguez organized online sit-ins that have allowed large numbers of people to temporarily disrupt the websites of U.S. government agencies by mobilizing all at once.

The work earned him recognition in academic circles, Dominguez said, because of the way his work “created conversations that disturb the social field.”

At UCSD, he established the b.a.n.g. lab, a research collaborative whose focuses include electronic civil disobedience and border disturbance technologies like the GPS tool.

So the investigations of possible criminal misconduct, Dominguez and his colleagues said, are puzzling.

“The question is why they are responding in this way now as opposed to last year when they gave me awards and I earned tenure based on all this research and practice,” he said.

“It could be,” Dominguez said, “that both the Transborder Immigrant Tool and the artistic research of b.a.n.g. lab all came together in a way that disturbed their measures of power.”

That is a feeling the university has had to fend off with increasing frequency. It has been bombarded by negative attention in recent months that has shaken confidence in its administration. In February, local and national media descended on the campus to report on events targeting UCSD’s black student community. Last month, students mobilized on campus to protest university budget cuts.

The mobilizations around both of these events, Dominguez said, were ripe for involvement of electronic forms of civil disobedience to express student concerns over the direction students felt the university was taking.

“Various forms of public provision across the state are under assault,” said Grant Kester, chair of the visual arts department. “In that environment, Ricardo has become more attentive to the politics of the university.”

Kester said the university’s investigations could have a chilling effect on research university-wide, but that Dominguez’s research creating electronic public spaces is of special symbolic importance.

“A public university has a unique responsibility to engage and ask questions about what the word ‘public’ means and what constitutes it,” Kester said. “One of the things Ricardo does in his research is explore some of those fault lines.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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