Call for sector guidelines on academic freedom on social media

Universities and scholars told to establish ‘the boundaries of acceptable speech’ as staff report meetings with managers over online activities

January 31, 2019
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Under scrutiny: universities and academics have been told to define boundaries as staff are reprimanded for their online comments

Universities and academics must urgently establish what constitutes acceptable speech by scholars online, experts have claimed, as several staff at institutions across the UK reveal that they have been contacted or disciplined by managers over their use of social media.

One senior member of staff at a UK university told Times Higher Education that his institution recently considered asking him to resign from his administrative duties after he published a negative tweet about UK government policies.

Another academic at a Russell Group institution said that he was told by his manager that he “tweets too much” after he publicly criticised workload in academia in general. “I didn’t feel free to talk publicly after that – it probably had the desired effect,” he said.

Several scholars said that the tensions between academics and managers over social media came to a head during strike action in the UK last year. One academic said that he had been asked to delete a tweet that included a photograph of a banner displayed during the strike.

“Universities hadn’t expected that Twitter would be used as a site for organising, so the response from most universities was to increase the scrutiny of what was taking place on social media,” he said. “It is unfortunate that there is a sense of constant surveillance.”

One source at the University of Exeter claimed that the number of scholars who had been contacted by managers at the institution over their use of social media during or since the strike action was in the “double figures”.

An Exeter spokesman said that staff “occasionally contact colleagues to ask them to be aware of and to stay within our policies on dignity, respect and academic freedom, including those that relate to social media use. Derogatory, threatening or offensive communication has no place in our university in any form.”

This is an issue that universities around the world are grappling with. Earlier this month, Chicago State University agreed to pay $650,000 (£494,000) to settle a four-year legal battle with two academics who published a blog critical of the institution’s leadership.

Some academics who were reprimanded by managers and spoke to THE admitted that they had been critical of their university on social media but argued that their comments were covered by academic freedom, suggesting that it is unclear where scholars should draw the line when writing about their institutions online.

Mark Carrigan, a digital sociologist at the University of Cambridge, said that many universities were “actively encouraging their staff to engage online” and “in a sector ridden with tensions, it was inevitable that these would include criticisms and attacks on universities and university management”.

“We urgently need to have a conversation about what constitutes acceptable speech by academics online,” he said.

Dr Carrigan added that “it would be a mistake to assert a domain of absolute freedom in which academics can say what they like online without consequence”, but said that the problem at the moment is that “the boundaries of acceptable speech are being dictated solely by university managers, often in opaque and sometimes ill-informed ways”.

“Learned societies and trade unions have an important role to play here, helping to provide a collegial balance to the bureaucratic regulation we are seeing from universities,” he said.

A professor at a Scottish university said that his tweets, which included criticisms of a policy at his institution, led to emails from multiple senior managers and a one-on-one meeting with the vice-chancellor. He said that the stress that this put him under significantly worsened his mental health, leading to him taking time off work with anxiety.

“There is not a simple answer to the question of how universities and academics should negotiate social media use, but the answer my university has developed is ‘don’t criticise in public and it’s pointless to criticise in private because nothing happens’,” he said.

Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at The Open University, said that social media was “a source of tension which is continually being negotiated by staff and their institutions”.

“There are lots of blurred boundaries here, with individuals and institutions needing to negotiate what is, after all, new territory that we are only beginning to understand,” he said.

Professor Weller said that academics should “refrain from” criticising colleagues who could be identified but cited the “crisis at The Open University” last year, which “increasingly played out in public” and led to the eventual resignation of the vice-chancellor, as an example of the way that social media can help resolve issues in academia.

“The freedom of academics to express themselves was respected in this instance, and although it may have been painful at the time, the result of this respect from official communication channels led to a mutual benefit in resolving the issues,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: ‘Urgent need’ for guidelines on use of social media

Reader's comments (2)

Academic environment is a controlled space. Whatever we say about freedom of expressions; this cannot be open ended because of the impact of events within the ivory towers on the larger society. It may therefore be necessary to have some degree of regulated activities on the social media platforms in a way that will not gag the creative input of scholars.
So peer referreed scholarly outputs on HE policy are entered into the REF which might implicitly or explicitly be critical of government or institutional priorities. Yet if those same academics promoted their work on social media, or if similar views were expressed without the peer review process, academics could face reprimand. How can we teach critical thinking, responsible leadership, effective communication, innovation, dispute resolution, digital literacy, tolerance, civic engagement, global citizenship, inclusivity and diversity, etc to our students if we operate under the tyranny of the thought police?

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