Five ways universities can protect faculty from online harassment

With more online engagement and interaction have come increased threats and attacks against faculty, staff and students. Here are measures institutions can take to raise awareness and provide support

Alexis Martinez's avatar
15 Sep 2023
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US institutions of higher education (HEIs) have asserted that part of their mission is creating knowledge and serving the public good through the robust exchange of ideas. But with that comes one of the fastest-growing challenges for higher education: protecting faculty and staff from attacks online. This is particularly true if universities expect faculty and staff to engage in potentially controversial topics.

The Covid-19 pandemic created a dependency on online engagement and interaction for HE and society. Classes, meetings and almost all other interactions moved online. As quickly as those environments were created, the reports of interruptions and cyberattacks came. In education, as in other sectors, there was a renewed focus on creating secure platforms, explanations of online expectations and accountability policies to preserve the online environment for its intended purpose. 

In January 2021, the PEW Research Center published a State of Online Harassment update. It reported that the overall rate of online harassment was consistent with research conducted in 2017, with one significant difference: there was evidence that the actuals had intensified. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Center for Technology & Society created a nationally representative survey in 2022. Its report in June 2023 expanded on the work of PEW, with specific questions about the types of harassment and lifetime versus year-on-year feedback. Across the board, the data revealed an increase in the instances and severity of online harassment.

As we launch a new academic year, educational institutions struggle to find ways to prevent online harassment and support faculty and staff in the event of an attack. Here are five strategies to consider:

1. Offer a statement of support and no tolerance from institutional leadership

One of the first recommendations of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is to “speak out clearly and forcefully to defend academic freedom and to condemn targeted harassment and intimidation of faculty members”. The statement alone won’t prevent bad behaviour, particularly in the larger online community. However, making faculty and staff aware of the institutional commitment to employees, their well-being and the educational mission is an essential first step. In April 2023, the University System of Georgia memorialised the AAUP statement on academic freedom as policy for all 26 higher education institutions. The system also directed the chancellor to conduct a review of best practices and ways to support freedom of expression.

2. Create an educational awareness campaign

In US higher education, awareness campaigns are sometimes required by federal or state law, while some are created as responses to local events. September is National Campus Safety Awareness Month. This is a great time to focus on online safety as well physical safety, and it’s also an excellent opportunity for different units, such as the public safety/police department, to work with the IT department on creating a safe online environment. Other opportunities arise throughout the academic year to tie in prevention and safety information for faculty, staff and students.

3. Understand state and local harassment definitions

Given the breadth of state and local legislation regarding prohibited or criminalised behaviour, each institution must clearly understand what may or may not be permitted within the jurisdiction. Clear information should be provided to all faculty and staff about what may or may not be prosecuted or protected within the definitions of harassment and cyberstalking. Because of the difference in local and state laws, it is important to clarify and explain to faculty and staff how language or behaviour at the institution might be protected. Be aware also that many legal definitions do not consider changing technologies, and increased threatening or harassing behaviours might not be covered by legislation. 

4. Provide secure technology options (or explain limitations of technology)

Faculty affairs or human resources (depending on the structure of an institution) should work with technology staff to provide information to all employees about the capacities of the technology available to community members. With the pandemic came a greater understanding and use of technology to support education. Recording content, providing materials before or after classroom sessions in alternative formats and providing alternative assessment options all became much more common after March 2020. However, what will have been used at the pandemic’s start might or might not be recommended as you start the 2023-2024 academic year. Together with the teaching and learning centre, human resources and faculty affairs can provide information on best practices for securing academic/educational materials.

5. Provide resources and support for reporting and responding to online harassment

Institutions can provide online resources and information for faculty, staff and students for reporting and responding to online harassment. The University of Chicago’s Office of the Provost has also provided the community with information about securing their online footprint. The University of California Irvine has created quick reference and resource sheets for staff.

At Georgia Institute of Technology, centres such as the Equity and Compliance Programs office and the victims advocate group provide information to all employees, including faculty and staff, of prohibited behaviours, resources and ways to report through an annual compliance campaign.

Creating the opportunity for one central reporting unit enables the institution to gather information quickly and regularly about the experiences of faculty and staff online. This allows for assessing what additional resources, education or support might be needed based on pattern behaviours.

In conclusion, institutions have ways they can prepare and protect faculty and staff from increasing threats and harassment in the online space and create or share resources through the institution. It’s important to leverage established policies and procedures, as well as put resources in place to help faculty and staff understand what constitutes online harassment, how to report it and what they can do to protect themselves.

Alexis Martinez is executive director of equity and compliance programmes and interim Title IX coordinator in the Division of Institute Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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