Editorial: Digital age poses new concerns for academic, faculty freedom

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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A number of U.S. universities, including Pitt, must update their seemingly antiquated speech policies to adapt to the digital age.

Professors and students converse about course material via email, web-based course management systems and social media platforms. Although the Internet offers efficiency, the permanent and distributable nature of speech intended to be private has sparked a new debate. The ease of disseminating faculty members’ online communication muddles long-ingrained policies that define a university’s stance on the open expression of ideas, employee privacy and work-related versus personal discourse.

As university administrators at Pitt and other institutions discuss what employees should and should not express online within the boundaries of the First Amendment, these decision makers must separate such discourse between personal and professional speech. Faculty members must maintain a professional presence when communicating publicly or privately online about university activity as representatives of their respective workplaces. This isn’t a matter of barring faculty members from expressing political, religious or otherwise personal views, but rather holding communication for work to a high level of professionalism.

As a rise in cases of online speech have caused a ruckus on campuses across the United States and incited a subsequent media frenzy, universities face a new decision: whether to review, revise or add policies regulating faculty members’ online speech.

One such instance was reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education last month regarding a professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. The professor sent an email to 18 students in her introductory geography class on Oct. 1, 2013 — the first day of last year’s government shutdown — regarding revisions to a class assignment. The assignment required students to compile government data, which they temporarily could not access because of the shutdown, so the professor informed students that “some of the data-gathering assignment will be impossible to complete until the Republican/tea party controlled House of Representatives agrees to fund the government.”

A student in the class who felt the professor’s message was politically charged took a screen shot of the email and posted it on her Twitter account accompanied by the tweet, “Can’t do my homework for class; govt. shutdown. So my prof. blames Republicans in an email blast.”

The predicament went viral. A number of news outlets, groups such as the American Association of University Professors and various political and free-speech groups, along with administrators at the Wisconsin college, rapidly became aware of the situation. A number of other private citizens bombarded the professor, who is still employed, with hate mail while she feared for her job. As a result of the incident, the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse issued an email stating that the professor’s political reference “did not deserve the protections of academic freedom,” according to the Chronicle, because it didn’t advance her students’ educational experience and might have troubled people with different views.

While it’s clear the onslaught of criticism rapidly blew this exchange out of proportion, it poses a question about whether a professor addressing housekeeping matters within a classroom should express his or her political views. In this case, the professor’s condemnation of the Republican and tea parties within a message about a class assignment was ill-advised and unprofessional.

During the aftermath of this incident, the Chronicle compiled information from more than 70 four-year universities across the United States and found that about half of those polled do not have policies in place regulating faculty’s online speech.

A committee organized by Pitt’s University Senate, the governing body that deals with tenure and academic freedom, has also begun to examine the University’s policies on online speech. The committee discussed the agenda item during its meeting on Monday and voted to establish a subcommittee to conduct an internal review of Pitt’s policies on academic freedom to evaluate the need for and potentially devise such an online speech policy at Pitt. 

The Senate was wise to set up a forum on its website that allows visitors to submit their opinions on instituting an online speech policy, and the Senate should be applauded for the democratic move as long as the newly formed subcommittee considers the responses when drafting such a policy.

The role of a professor to guide intellectual discourse within a classroom is specific to stimulating discussion and advancing the critical thinking of students, not to impose his or her political, religious or otherwise personal views upon the students. The same policy should hold when communicating online.

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