The way in which UK universities manage staff use of social media has been called into question by a scholar reprimanded for perceived inappropriate online activity by her institution.
Experts have also queried the wording of “draconian” university social media policies that stipulate what staff can and cannot do online.
“I was reprimanded for some tweets that I had posted questioning the policies of home secretary Theresa May,” she said. “I received a long email from ‘the Webmaster’ [at Leeds], stating that I couldn’t post political tweets in case someone thought that they represented the views of Leeds University.”
She said that a lengthy email exchange ensued, and that a number of members of staff had backed her stance that it was not possible for academics to do their job without being “political”.
“How on earth [am I] meant to be non-political, especially since I am a legal academic and was writing about May trying to opt out of European Union policing treaties?”
The university eventually backed down, she said, after instructing her to remove the name of the university from her Twitter profile. “I pointed out that anyone with the most basic access to the internet could easily find out who I was using Google,” she said. “It was stupid, and it meant that people at Leeds…were monitoring our tweeting, and I was alarmed by this.”
A spokeswoman for Leeds said that Dr McCartney had been asked to “add a suitable disclaimer” to her Twitter account to make clear that her views were not those of the university but were personal. She added that the university “does not systematically or proactively monitor staff accounts”.
In 2010, Leeds removed a social networking code from its website that warned staff and students that it was unacceptable to criticise the university after the institution received a wave of criticism online.
However, seemingly restrictive policies are still in place at other universities and published online.
Edinburgh Napier University’s guidelines urge staff to “avoid social media communications that…could damage the University’s reputation”, even if it is clear that the tweets do not represent the views of the university.
The University of Kent’s policy states that staff should “inform the Alumni Relations team if they intend to engage with former students online”. This applies, according to the policy, to all staff who are identifiable as working at the university from their social media profiles, but a Kent spokesman said that it was intended only for people wishing to set up a dedicated alumni platform.
David Gauntlett, professor of media and communications and head of the Centre for Social Media Research at the University of Westminster, said that academics in a wide range of fields are likely to make political arguments, and that rules to try to prevent this were “both silly and counterproductive”.
“A university has to be careful about its reputation and public perception, of course, and social media can affect those things in both positive and negative ways. But academics should be able to tweet freely, just as they can speak freely,” he said.
He added that “a bit of lightweight training and advice works better than draconian policies”.