Friending a Strike

September 10, 2009

When Oakland University, in Michigan, and the union that represents 600 of its faculty members failed to reach labor agreement last week, the professors went on strike and the university shut down -- while representatives from the opposing sides went behind closed doors in downtown Detroit to negotiate. At the same time, a much larger and more eclectic group began discussing the issue in a space that had no doors -- just walls.

Facebook walls, that is. Faculty officers from the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) created a group on the popular social networking site and began posting updates on the negotiations. They also started using the union’s Facebook fan page to post fliers, press releases, and links to media coverage of the strike. Supporters began leaving messages on the page's comment wall. Others started chattering on the wall of the university’s official fan page. Soon, a student group devoted to the strike appeared on the social networking site and quickly acquired more than 300 members. Then a Twitter hash tag. Then another. Then a Flickr account. Then a YouTube channel.

Meanwhile, the university’s posted official updates, along with links to press releases and news from student media outlets, on its own Twitter feed

“The whole phenomenon is really fascinating,” said Theresa Rowe, the chief information officer at Oakland, who also teaches a course on social media and the Internet. She said she plans to use the strike as a case study once classes resume. (Update: the university announced this morning that the two sides have reached an agreement; classes resumed at 7:30 a.m.)

Lizabeth Barclay, a professor of management at Oakland and the grievance officer for the university’s AAUP chapter, said the use of social media has been a godsend for bolstering solidarity among faculty members and making sure everyone is up-to-date on the situation. During past strikes, she said, the chief union negotiator would record daily phone messages on the progress of the bargaining talks. Professors would then call in, listen to the recording, and that was it.

“If you have 600 people calling one number, it’s not good,” she said. Also, “you couldn’t leave any messages -- you could just listen to a tape, that’s it. And that’s not very satisfying.”

The Facebook pages have also served as an aggregator for news links and Web documents related to the strike — useful, Barclay said, “because not everyone can watch all news channels at once.”

“This has made things much more interesting,” she added. “And it has made us more nimble.”

Rowe, the university CIO, said the last few days have solidified her notion that social media can be a “game-changer” in the relationships between students, faculty, and administrators on modern college campuses. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, students are likely to ignore or distrust administrative notices and official releases.

“Administrations are very used to having these messages that we craft very slowly and carefully over time,” she said, “and I’m not sure that crafting is going to meet the expectation for speed that has been created by social networking sites.”

Some higher-education administrators have been less apt than professors to connect with students via the quick, informal communication style that prevails on social media sites. Now that battle lines have been drawn at Oakland over the labor contract, Rowe said she thinks students are more likely to trust the information posted to Facebook by professors than official notices disseminated by the university.

“At universities, we have to be open to all these communication channels up front,” she said, “and we need to be out there using them regularly and we need to be building trusted relationships within our networks so when there’s any crisis in our community, our social communities will trust what we’re saying.”

Jonathan A. Berz, a senior at Oakland, said he thinks the administration has done a poor job communicating with students since the strike began last Thursday. “I noticed immediately that nobody seemed to know what was going on; we weren’t getting much information from the administration,” he said.

Berz reacted by starting a Facebook group of his own, called “OU Students for AAUP,” where he started posting links to the AAUP Web site. Students have traded comments and information on the group’s wall, including some harsh assessments of official notices sent out via e-mail by university administrators. Berz also videotaped students asking questions of the administration, created a YouTube channel, and published the videos.

Michelle Moser, director of new media communications at Oakland, said that the administration has actually maintained a social-media outreach operation throughout the strike that is both robust and relatively neutral. She acknowledged that individual administrators have not matched professors’ willingness to express their personal views on the contract dispute, but said that is simply due to differences between roles. “[Professors are] allowed a more conversational tone, and they’re allowed a little bit more freedom than administrators,” she said. “They’re not bound by the same professional guidelines.”

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