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University of Iowa Muzzles Faculty on Facebook

October 10, 2019
 
 

When an environmental sciences professor at the University of Iowa learned that Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate change activist, would take part in a protest in Iowa City last week, the professor suggested in an email to colleagues that they promote it on the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering's Facebook page.

The engineering school's director of communications and marketing promptly nixed that idea, according to The Gazette, a local newspaper.

“We cannot use our channels to publicize or promote policy change,” Jason Kosovski replied in an email citing the university’s political activity guidelines and policy. “We are always free to publicize our research, even if it has policy impacts, but Greta’s visit does not fit under the umbrella of university research.”

Kosovski stressed faculty and staff should not use college or department channels to promote Thunberg’s visit, The Gazette reported. “I have consulted with UI Government Relations, and they have emphasized that this event does not fall within the scope of something we can promote,” he wrote.

Michelle Scherer, the surprised faculty member, asked the university's communications team to reconsider.

“Boy, we are missing an amazing opportunity here,” she wrote in an email. “It is all the students (undergrad and grad) are talking about. If there is any wiggle room to reconsider our stance on this, I’d love to make a pitch to someone to do so.”

The communications team declined her request, The Gazette reported.

University officials said the propriety of public universities using publicly funded social media accounts to promote non-university events is a complicated issue, and that's why faculty are required to follow certain guidelines.  

“In fact, just the week before, faculty were provided a reminder (of) the policies with this language,” Jeneane Beck, assistant vice president for external relations, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

The reminder, which included a link to the guidelines, stated that “The University of Iowa fully supports your constitutional right to express your personal opinions regarding political candidates and issues, but there are a few guidelines you need to remember as (an)  employee of a public institution.”

Scherer told The Gazette she could have still posted about the event, despite the guidelines, because Thunberg’s visit was not political and was academically relevant to important environmental work underway across campus.

“Students are interested in this,” Scherer told the newspaper. “This is an educational opportunity, and as an educator I feel the university could have engaged more.”

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