FBI agents are advising universities on keeping data secure against terrorism.
The regional head of the US chief domestic law enforcement agency, the FBI, was personally at the head of the line of agents who filed into the office of the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a university of about 4,000 students just west of Boston.
Dennis Berkey, the president, and other WPI administrators were politely admonished in the meeting to safeguard their unpublished research. Professors should be wary of anyone showing an unusual interest in their work, the agents warned. They shouldn't leave laptop computers with sensitive information unprotected when abroad.
Dr Berkey responded that he puts his own laptop in the hotel safe when travelling off campus, but the agents told him hackers could break into a laptop through a hotel's internet system when he used it in his room.
The FBI agents also offered to train faculty in how to be aware of potential foreign espionage and terrorist activity. At that Dr Berkey drew the line. The university already knew how to protect its information and could do so on its own, he said.
The FBI confirms that quiet conversations like this have begun to take place at universities across America as the agency gives notice that terrorists might try to get their hands on academic research that could be used against the US.
"Our second top priority" - after defending the nation against terrorism - "is to protect the US against foreign intelligence operations and espionage," said Gail Marcinkiewicz, an FBI spokeswoman.
The purpose of the meetings on university campuses, said Ms Marcinkiewicz, is to "go out with our academic alliances - we're also doing this with our business alliances - and help them to protect themselves from espionage and terrorism".
Their relative openness means that universities and other "poorly defended locations" are vulnerable, FBI director Robert Mueller III told a Senate committee.
An FBI scenario conjectures foreign spies slipping into the country on student visas, stealing university research or scientific breakthroughs to use against the US and breaking into university computer networks to pirate secrets and identities.
The visits to universities are part of a formal FBI programme called the College and University Security Effort, or Cause, under which regional special agents in charge meet with the heads of universities and explain "how and why some foreign governments may be attempting to pry loose their research and intellectual property creations", as the agency puts it.
While they are certainly not advertised, the meetings are also not covert, and the FBI does not admit to doing any spying of its own on American campuses.
The agency also has established a National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, made up of the presidents and chancellors of Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon universities, the universities of Florida, Pennsylvania and California at Los Angeles, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others, to advise it and to help mediate in conflicts that could threaten academic freedom.
"As we do our work, we wish to be sensitive to university concerns about international students, visas, technology export policy, and the special culture of colleges and universities," Mr Mueller said.
Still, some in academia are nervous that FBI scrutiny could discourage openness and international exchange.
"Higher education is one of our nation's greatest assets," said Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, who chairs the board, "and it is critical that those entrusted with our national security better understand the valuable contributions our universities make to research discoveries, international collaboration, faculty and student exchanges and the development of intellectual property."
Carol Rose, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said that universities needed to avoid the perception that they're spying on their students or faculty.
"It's important for universities to be transparent about what it is they are doing about working with the Government in ways that might impinge on people's privacy," Ms Rose said. "If there's a perception out there that the FBI is working with a university to be on the lookout for bad guys, then someone might not ask a question or pursue a line of research out of fear of losing his visa."
She said: "It's really hard to have that uninhibited academic freedom if people are worried that their actions are being monitored by the FBI."
But Dr Berkey said openness and caution are "not inconsistent. It's just a time in our world when we all have to be a little bit more observant about what's going on around us. Let's all take increased responsibility for the safety and security of our community."
It's the spectre of surveillance that worries Ms Rose.
"A university is supposed to be a place of uninhibited inquiry, and the minute you say that university professors should report any questions that are suspicious, it creates a chilling effect."
In a related measure, the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued an order requiring the nation's 33 research and test reactors, most of which are owned by universities, to fingerprint and conduct FBI background checks on anyone with access to radioactive material.
Many university reactors, including those at MIT and the University of Missouri, use highly enriched uranium, which is also an important ingredient of nuclear weapons. Most - including those at the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology - have been converted since the September 11 terrorist attacks to low-enriched uranium more commonly used at commercial nuclear reactors.
Back at Worcester Polytech, Dr Berkey doesn't mind the new attention he's receiving from the FBI. "It's very much the same as the concern we have now about protecting our personal information, with the ubiquitous issue of so much info floating around," he said.
"I don't think universities are any more generally vulnerable than society as a whole. And, yes, universities should be open environments, but that's not inconsistent with being careful."
The FBI's 'academic partnership' and national security matters
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has iconic global status thanks in large part to the film and television industries' fascination with the Feds and their activities.
But the FBI's high-profile work arresting Mafia "godfathers" and tracking down serial killers belies a more prosaic and painstaking approach that includes the bureau's "academic partnership".
The partnership is divided into two parts.
First is the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, a 17-member panel of university presidents that will meet three times a year in Washington to discuss national security issues. Board members will also meet with regional FBI offices close to their campuses.
The members include Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University; William Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University; Albert Carnesale, chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles; Jared Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University; Marye Ann Fox, chancellor of the University of California at San Diego; Robert Gates, president of Texas A&M University; Gregory Geoffroy, president of Iowa State University; and Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Tech- nology.
Second there is the College and University Security Effort (Cause), through which FBI regional directors - called "special agents in charge"- meet with university presidents and administrators.
The special agents can train faculty and staff to identify suspicious questions about their research and safeguard unpublished material. The FBI also shares information on which foreign governments it believes may be intent on stealing information.
The dual initiative also offers the universities the chance to add potentially lucrative degree programmes in terrorism, counter-intelligence and homeland security, and consulting work for faculty on national security matters.