Orange crate in alley

Pursuing a Social Media Policy that Supports Academic Freedom

Last year, my then-employer, Charleston Southern University (CSU), instituted a new social media policy. Though I believe it was largely unintended, that policy (which is still available on CSU’s website) placed unreasonable limits on academic freedom, including in the classroom. It also contradicted existing policies in the Faculty Handbook. However, the faculty were able to get the Board of Trustees to replace that bad policy with a new policy that I drafted myself. Though I am no longer affiliated with CSU, they now have a solid social media policy that safeguards academic freedom.

Academic freedom and social media policies have both been in the spotlight of late, particularly in the cases of Patti Adler’s course, “Deviance in U.S. Society” at the University of Colorado–Boulder and the adoption of a new, restrictive social media policy by the Kansas Board of Regents. In light of these specific events, and my experiences going through a social media policy change at CSU, I offer what I hope are helpful suggestions to faculty seeking to preserve or regain academic freedom at institutions with bad social media policies or no social media policies.

If your campus has no social media policy

Your institution needs a social media policy. Which is to say that you probably don’t actually need one, since existing policies may cover the use of social media, even if social media are not explicitly named. However, it is rather likely that an administrator in the next few years will perceive a hole in the university’s legal defenses and will try and fill it with a new policy. It behooves faculty, then, where no explicit social media policy exists, to draft a reasonable policy and submit it to the Board of Trustees/Regents, while “no policy” is still the only alternative. This not only gives faculty first crack at composing a good policy, but it can put faculty in the position of defending an existing policy in the face of future proposed changes, rather than attacking an existing policy.

This can be especially important because overly restrictive social media policies are typically enacted with the intention of protecting the university’s well-being. For example, CSU’s original policy stated, “the use of social media can pose risks to CSU’s confidential and proprietary information, reputation and brands and can jeopardize CSU’s compliance with business rules and laws applicable to our industry.” The policy recently enacted by the Kansas Board of Regents references social media use that is “contrary to the best interest of the university.” Faculty dissent after such a policy is in place can be perceived as an attempt to weaken the university’s legal defenses or public image. However, this is less likely to be the case when the trustees are deciding between a faculty-authored policy and lack of a policy.

When drafting a new policy, faculty can adopt a similar position of defensive strength by working from an existing policy adopted by another university. I took the social media policy at Grand Valley State University as a model, making very few changes in my draft for CSU. Revising an existing policy from a peer (or better known) university is common, and it can add credence to a proposal to know that administrators, faculty, trustees, and lawyers somewhere else have approved it, and that another institution is living and thriving under the policy.

When drafting a new policy, reference relevant policies already in place directly in the new policy. CSU has a strong, pointed statement on academic freedom in the Faculty Handbook, and many universities have similar policies that apply directly to social media. (Though CSU’s Faculty Handbook is not a public document, the American Association of University Professors points out that CSU’s official statement on academic freedom is generally consistent with the AAUP’s Statement of Principles of academic freedom.) When strong policies on academic freedom, publishing, or speaking in public are already in place, the best social media policy is often one that simply spells out how existing policies apply to the use of social media. Such a policy would be difficult to reject, as well as difficult to change, since it would be clear how any proposed social media limitations would limit academic freedom or affect other modes of scholarly discourse. It would also make it more obvious what other policies would need to be changed simultaneously to enact those limitations, making it more difficult actually to put those limitations into policy. Many faculty who are not concerned about limitations to social media will fight attempts to change a general policy on academic freedom. Drawing explicit connections between social media and an existing academic freedom policy can motivate more faculty to join the fight if academic freedom is challenged in the context of social media.

At CSU, a teaching-oriented university where few faculty used social media publicly, even many members of the Faculty Senate seemed initially not to share my concern over the social media policy. Until I shared with them how I and others use social media in the classroom. Once faculty realized the effect of this policy on the students and on pedagogical choices, the Faculty Senate became much more energized. Thus, I highly recommend any social media policy proposals from the faculty not be framed primarily in terms of preserving faculty rights, but instead be presented to the trustees centered around student welfare. Trustees generally care about student success. And so social media does not need to be made into a management/labor dispute. Instead, we can come to the trustees as pedagogical experts who interact with students daily, and present them with a policy that gives pedagogues what we need to serve those students best. After all, academic freedom is good for the students, too, and so it can easily be preserved in nuanced policies that have student success at their foundation.

Of course, where student well-being is at stake, students should have a voice. Even the most business-minded administrators will listen to the concerns of their “customers” (the term used for students in CSU’s original social media policy). And as critical pedagogues, part of the reason we use social media in class is to help students develop a public voice. Both in our classes and in our policy discussions, especially where freedom is at stake, we should be empowering students to take agency and to speak openly, clearly, critically, and with nuance. Ultimately, student success in developing and exercising such a voice will be the most significant point in favor of a liberal social media policy.

If your campus has a bad social media policy

First, know that it is possible to completely throw out a bad policy and replace it with a good one.

Second, assume that those who composed the bad policy did so with good intentions. Even if they did not — and even if you know it! — acting under that assumption can go a long way as you seek to replace the existing policy.

In the case of CSU, the policy was enacted with good intentions, but put in place by an administrative department that was unaware of the extent to which it would negatively impact the academic work of the university, and was likely unaware of some of the academic policies with which the policy conflicted. I also found out in the process of changing the policy that I had allies not only on Faculty Senate, but in the IT department. It turned out that the policy had been enacted as a protective move for the university, with every expectation that the policy would be revised, perhaps substantially. While many of us would have preferred that discussions take place between administrators, faculty, students, and the IT department before the policy was put in place, the faculty found little resistance when we proposed a replacement policy that protected the university while simultaneously safeguarding academic freedom.

Lastly, most of what I suggested above about drafting a policy from scratch applies to the drafting of a replacement. In particular, if your university has good, previously existing policies on academic freedom, participating in public discourse, and faculty/student privacy, drafting a proposed replacement social media policy that clearly applies those existing policies to social media will make it clear where the existing social media policy is in conflict with the longer-standing policies. At CSU, noting those contradictions and proposing a replacement that directly applied the older, broader policies to the specific domain of social media made the policy change relatively smooth. Likewise, drafting a new policy that demonstrates where the current social media policy fails the students will also go a long way in recovering the rights of the faculty.

Of course, any discussion of students and academic freedom, especially in public discourse, raises questions about the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA). Kevin Smith (Duke Univ.) provides helpful guidelines for faculty requiring social media use in the classroom on the HASTAC blog. As a music professor, my students and I live in an environment where students perform publicly as a requirement for course credit. However, many of them view academic work differently from musical performances, and different students and programs have different expectations about privacy and public engagement in coursework. We as faculty should be sensitive to these concerns when crafting course requirements.

What I have presented here only comes from experiences at a single university. Every policy is written by different people with different personal and institutional histories and priorities. However, I hope that these suggestions will help other universities enact good policies that protect academic freedom — for the sake of the faculty, the students, and society as a whole.

4 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for this article. This is an incredibly important topic not only in education, but the business world as well. I recently read an article on open forum that addressed this in the business world:

    I often find that 99.99% of incidences that occur on social media are actually covered in other behavior and employment policies – the media/setting/environment doesn’t matter, but the behavior does. I’m a bigger fan of broad professional development and digital citizenship programs that address both the positive and negative impacts of a social media presence – highlighting the fact that certain behaviors that occur online will impact a student/employee the way it would if they did it in real life. Likewise, freedom of speech and academic freedom laws should expand to include an online presence.

    I will be sure to include this in upcoming discussions we have as our technology policies evolve.


  2. Pingback : social media policy | JIM BULDO

  3. Pingback : Center for Learning Technology

  4. Pingback : Laura Hunter's EC&I 832 - Is a participatory culture possible in a corporate learning environment?

Leave a Reply