Leader: Online criticism is acceptable, but abuse is not

March 2, 2007

What, if anything, can universities do to protect themselves and their staff from the phenomenal growth of cyber-criticism made by students? There are a couple of interrelated issues here. The first is to make a distinction between attacks on institutions and those on individuals; the second to distinguish between professional criticism and personal abuse.

The stark fact is that websites that invite students to post comments on institutions and lecturers are unlikely to be closed down and will probably increase in popularity. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Students have a right to express their opinions about courses for which they have paid a great deal of money and to which they have devoted a lot of time. It is also undeniable that peer recommendation is one of the strongest determinants of prospective student choice. Is it surprising that students prefer to accept the opinions of their peers over the overblown claims made by some university marketing departments or to rely on the occasionally capricious ratings assigned by league tables?

Universities have reacted differently to this challenge to their carefully crafted official images. Most have ignored it. Some, such as Warwick University, have embraced it by posting their own reports or advertising on the appropriate sites. A few have even allowed cogent student criticism to be hosted by university servers. However, institutions will never be able to have the last word on these sites or to comprehensively monitor what is being said about them. Ultimately, it is probably best to accept, and some might say even celebrate, the fact that in this arena universities cannot own the message.

Dignified inaction, however, should not be the position of universities when dealing with online attacks that target individual members of staff.

In the US, the RateMyProfessor website - founded by a former, but now very rich, college dropout - argues that it empowers students to make rational choices based on legitimate opinions and that libellous or incorrect material is withdrawn promptly. Given that "Al Einstein" had an entry until recently on the Princeton University page and that many student assessments are concerned more with lecturers' sexual allure, or perceived lack of, than their pedagogical talents, that claim seems dubious. In the UK, many student criticisms - usually hosted on MySpace or FaceBook - can be similarly personal.

Some lecturers have chosen to laugh off attacks; others to shrug, allow that their students have a right to a space in which to let off steam, however public it may be, and keep their bruised feelings to themselves. In the US, one academic has even turned the tables on his juvenile assessors and fought back with a RateMyStudents site. Yet however brave, foolish or supine these reactions may be, why should it be down to individual academics to formulate an appropriate response? Abuse can quickly descend into harassment. In the US, there are cases of gay and female academics victimised by online student witch-hunts that doubtless started as ribaldry but ended with professional and personal lives in tatters. Universities have a duty of care to those they employ, and although the abuse exposed on our pages takes place in the unpoliced world of the web, institutions are not powerless. They should make students aware that criticism is one thing, abuse is another; that personal and insulting postings on third-party sites will not be tolerated; and that if their hand is discovered, students can expect to be disciplined.

The teacher/student relationship rests on the student's implicit acknowledgement that his or her tutor has something of value to impart.

That implies respect. It is difficult to see how lecturers can command respect if they are deprived of dignity.

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