Academic Freedom: How Will It Fare in the Age of Social Media?

by Dr. Luanne Fose - The Tweed Geek on January 14, 2014

american-flagIn general, most faculty rely on the premise of academic freedom without thinking too much about it. The concept has been a part of academia for decades and may even be taken for granted somewhat in the 21st century. We often hear of academic freedom struggles in other countries, but until the past few years, the problem hasn’t really been an issue for faculty who teach at universities in the United States. However, recent activities at several American universities having to do with the use of social media bring this privilege into question. For example, in September 2013, the University of Kansas became a focus of the news when they temporarily suspended David W. Guth, a tenured journalism professor, for his Twitter comment regarding the Washington Navy Yard shootings: “#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.” 1 

In response to Guth’s circumstance, on December 18, 2013, the University of Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy under which faculty members and other employees can now be suspended, dismissed, or terminated from employment for “improper use of social media.” In early January 2014, more than 80 professors at the University of Kansas (KU) wrote a letter to the Board of Regents requesting that they suspend their controversial social-media policy.  The  letter states that “With the policy in place during this period of review, faculty and staff at Kansas universities would no longer have freedom of speech, nor the academic freedom necessary to do their jobs, nor tenure.”2  The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who have always been known for their protection of academic freedoms, chimed in as well, calling the policy “a gross violation of the fundamental principles of academic freedom.” Under these pressures, the University of Kansas Board of Regents agreed to take the policy under review and come back with a decision by April 2014. The one thing that may overturn the policy is the possibility that KU’s accreditation may be at risk since accreditation-granting bodies usually require that a university be “committed to freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.” Professor Susan Twombly,  chairwoman of  KU’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies has brought into question whether this new policy, which limits academic freedom, may threaten KU’s accreditation — a point that brings up a sticky wicket for the Board of Regents.3

The University of Kansas is not the only university that has been struggling with the values of academic freedom in the past few years, but it certainly put itself out there in the spotlight by creating a written policy for faculty and staff to follow. The AAUP has also been laboring to redefine the boundaries in which academic freedom falls. The original policy for academic freedom was proposed by the AAUP in 1940. In those days, the classroom consisted of brick and mortar buildings and so the policy of academic freedom only addressed the classroom and printed research. In 2004, the policy was updated and states that “the concept of ‘classroom’ must be broadened” to reflect how instruction increasingly occurs via a “medium that clearly has no physical boundaries” and that “[t]he ‘classroom’ must indeed encompass all sites where learning occurs.”  This report observes that “the boundaries of the ‘classroom’ have only expanded” in the past decade and concludes that “a classroom is not simply a physical space, but any location, real or virtual, in which instruction occurs, and that in classrooms of all types the protections of academic freedom and of the faculty’s rights to intellectual property in lectures, syllabi, exams, and similar materials are as applicable as they have been in the physical classroom.”4  

In light of recent issues, the AAUP created a draft document in November 2013 to bring the policy more up-to-date.  The 2004 AAUP report focused upon private communication via faculty email and public communication such as websites, blogs, listservs, wikis, learning management systems, or faculty home pages.  Since that time social media has blurred the lines of private and public communication, making it more difficult to guide faculty in rules of communication while still retaining the values of academic freedom. All sorts of social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Yammer, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, Instagram, etc. call into question the fundamental issues of academic freedom.5

It would be ridiculous to deny that with the rise of online teaching, the classroom has not enlarged. Such teaching warrants the use of social media sites as a way to remain relevant and keep communication ongoing between the instructor and students. Not only has the classroom enlarged outside of the barriers of brick and mortar buildings, but online teaching is now being practiced by a much larger group of faculty than ever before and most likely, it will continue to grow. What will be your response to these issues of academic freedom? In an effort to remain safe, many faculty have abandoned social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in order to avoid scrutiny from university administration. Total abstinence from social media is their answer to alleviate the risks of losing their jobs due to expressing a personal opinion in what was once considered a world with freedom of speech. Are we at risk in losing touch with our students if we abandon the very forms by which they find expression? Is this the best response to this problem? Does this response infringe upon the real meaning of academic freedom or is it simply mature wisdom? Is there an answer that can quell university administrator’s fears while allowing faculty to teach with social media tools in freedom without fear of reprisal? 

What are your thoughts on this dilemma? I’d love to hear them. Please take the time to make a comment. You may have solutions that others have not thought of yet.

~ Luanne Fose (The Tweed Geek)








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