We Have to Protect Ourselves

If anything, faculty members should be a bit more paranoid about social media

Brian Taylor

February 17, 2014

If you’re a faculty member, do yourself a favor: Google the phrase "professor under fire." Many if not most of the thousands of hits have something to do with social media—in particular, with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or blogging. Social media constitutes the classic Catch-22 for academics: We can’t ignore it or avoid it, nor do most of us want to, yet it gets us into more trouble than anything else.

As born pedants and guides, we find the opportunity to reach new audiences and interact with people, including students, irresistible. But there are times when we should resist that impulse. And there are other times when, even if we don’t put our words out there for public consumption, there’s a fair chance one of our students will do it for us.

A series of recent incidents involving professors and social media has focused our attention on the politically fraught nature of that relationship. Or at least it should have. Instead, each new episode seems to catch us by surprise, leaving us more troubled and outraged. We appear to have adopted the stance that social "media" is just that—merely an alternative medium—and our words are no different whether spoken in a faculty meeting or tweeted online. We assume the great institutions that have historically afforded us protection on campus—tenure and academic freedom—will likewise protect us when we venture outside the academy onto websites and blogs.

That has turned out not to be true in several high-profile cases. Professors have been censured, suspended, and even fired for things they have tweeted, blogged, or posted on Facebook—or things they said that other people have posted. (Feel free to Google "professor under fire" to read about some of these cases. I decided to write this without mentioning any names because I don’t want to further embarrass anyone, pick at any scabbed-over wounds, or add to the number of search-engine hits.)

When we do step outside our roles as faculty members, aren’t we protected by the First Amendment, just like any other citizens? Perhaps. But of course even First Amendment protections have limits. And in the case of "public employees," which most faculty members are, the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos certainly blurred the lines between public and private speech. When are we speaking (or tweeting, or posting) "pursuant to our duties," and when are we speaking as private citizens? The legal profession is still debating that one.

The upshot is that, as professors, we can no longer rely on tenure, academic freedom, or even the First Amendment to protect us when we "speak." We have to protect ourselves. Here are some suggestions for doing just that.

Watch what you say—and how and where you say it. You would think such common-sense advice would hardly need to be repeated for adults with advanced degrees. But apparently it does. Most of the hot water that professors find themselves in, with regard to the Internet, results from their saying the wrong thing in the wrong forum, or saying the right thing in the wrong way.

Let’s start with the classroom. Perhaps the simplest thing you can do to stay out of trouble is to teach your subject without injecting politics into class discussions where it has no relevance. If political issues are relevant to a particular discussion, then make sure students understand how. Try to discuss politics as dispassionately as possible so students recognize that you’re not simply trying to indoctrinate them into a particular point of view. Otherwise, you may find yourself starring in the latest viral YouTube video.

And when it comes to sharing your views on social media, ask yourself one simple question: Are you intentionally phrasing your post to create a stir, or are you seeking to be understood without giving undue offense? That’s especially important on sites like Twitter, where you have so little space to work with. The bottom line: If you’re trying to stir things up, you probably will—and you might not enjoy the aftermath.

Draw clear boundaries between "official" and "personal." A few years ago, the previous administration at my college instituted a couple of policies that seemed designed to discourage people from speaking out publicly on controversial educational issues. One of those policies listed the potentially dire consequences for those who "represented the college" without authorization.

My first response was to begin separating, as much as possible, my work as a state employee from what I have come to consider my personal work. That proved challenging because much of what I write as a "private citizen" has to do with my experiences in academe. However, I chose to draw the line in a very specific place: Henceforth, any activity not directly connected to my official job description I would treat as personal, not "work-related."

That’s why I don’t list most of my blog posts or online editorials as "publications" on my annual report to my employer. Doing so, I believe, would move those activities into the realm of "pursuant to my duties" and give the college a degree of control over them that I don’t want it to have. Also, I rarely mention my college by name, and, in situations where acknowledgment of my affiliation is unavoidable (as in The Chronicle, for instance where writers must list their title and institution), I have asked the editors to add a disclaimer like the one you see at the bottom of this column.

And of course I don’t make any reference to my employer on my Facebook page (which is purely personal, in any case) or on either of my Twitter accounts (one personal, one professional).

Sure, it’s possible for an institution to punish you for things you write or post as a private citizen, but you’re only making it easier if the administration can show that you were speaking as a "representative of the college." Sadly, when colleges and universities play that game, they are the ones that lose out in the long run. They sacrifice a great deal of positive publicity (since most of what professors would say would actually reflect well on their employers) in hopes of avoiding the rare scandal.

But that’s their problem. I’m just concerned with keeping myself out of the administration’s cross-hairs—even though we now have a new administration that seems friendlier to faculty members with a public persona. Those policies I mentioned are still on the books, if somewhat modified, and I don’t want to give a future administration any ammunition.

Use your own equipment—and time. My second reaction, when those campus policies were first introduced, was to go out and buy my own laptop computer. Along with the policies came a verbal reminder, during a faculty meeting, that the college owns our computers and can go through our hard drives and email anytime it so desires. I didn’t think that would actually happen, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

Up to that point, I had used my college-issued laptop for practically everything, including blogging, posting on Facebook, and so forth. Now I reserve it solely for activities that are directly related to my job as a professor, such as communicating with students, colleagues, and supervisors by email, maintaining the website for my classes, and submitting various forms and reports. For everything else, I use my personal computer.

Not only do I avoid using my college-issued machine for "personal" activities, I don’t even use the college’s server. Although I often carry my personal laptop to work and use it for "official business," because that can be easier than switching back and forth between machines, I make it a point not to post on Facebook or Twitter and not to submit a blog post or column from the office. I also have a private email address that I use for all of my noncollege work when I’m away from the office.

In addition, I do almost all of my public writing on my own time—i.e., not during office hours or in between classes. I know a professor’s job is such that "on the clock" has little meaning. (For instance, I do most of my grading at home, after regular working hours, like most faculty members I know.) But once again, I’m trying to draw a clear line between my college work and my own work.

Organize, advocate, and resist. Perhaps my advice here strikes you as a bit paranoid? If so, then either you don’t have a public persona or else you haven’t faced the kind of challenges that I’ve had, which is not to say you won’t. Indeed, if this column has a theme, it’s that perhaps we should all be a little more paranoid.

But that doesn’t mean all is lost. Those two policies I mentioned have been "somewhat modified." That’s because after they were first introduced, a small group of faculty members (including yours truly) organized a protest: We informed our colleagues of the policy’s dangers by email, we lobbied administrators, and we pressured members of the Faculty Senate. Ultimately, the policies were watered down to the point where we could live with them—barely.

Of course, the problem isn’t just local. It’s national, as your Google search will show. If institutional policies that restrict faculty speech concern you, then you should join or support a national organization that fights for faculty rights, such as the American Association of University Professors or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. And you can always be active on your own campus, serving as a policy watchdog and joining with like-minded colleagues to advocate for faculty rights.

My own situation has improved greatly over the last 18 months. No one in the current administration (as far as I know) has gotten upset about anything I’ve posted in that time. But I’m still writing this at home, late in the evening, using my own laptop.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of "Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges." He writes monthly for our community-college column The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak .