Not So Private Professors

March 2, 2010

Whether it’s avoiding bars frequented by students or politely declining the occasional social invitation, professors often make an extra effort to establish boundaries with their pupils. But social networking sites, which are often more public than they may appear, are lifting the veil on the private lives of professors in ways they may not have expected.

Gloria Gadsden said she thought she was talking only to close friends and family as she vented on Facebook about her students, but the East Stroudsburg University sociology professor has since learned the hard way that her frustrated musings were viewable by some of the very students she had consciously declined to “friend” in the past. A small change to the settings for Gadsden’s online profile allowed the “friends” of Gadsden’s own “friends” to read her updates, and in so doing created a controversy that the professor now feels could damage her career and her chances at tenure.

Gadsden was placed on administrative leave last week after a student reported two Facebook postings that some have interpreted as threats. On Jan. 21, Gadsden wrote “Does anyone know where to find a very discreet hitman? Yes, it’s been that kind of day …” Another post in the same vein came a month later, as Gadsden opined: “had a good day today, DIDN’T want to kill even one student :-). Now Friday was a different story.”

Gadsden’s suspension and the continuing investigation into her postings not only highlight the seriousness with which some colleges are responding to any sign of a security threat, but also further removes the illusion that faculty members -- or anyone, for that matter -- can maintain a completely private life on the Internet.

Until last week, Gadsden said, she thought that by limiting her cyber friendships she could maintain the firewall between her personal life and her role as a professor. But she believes an update to Facebook’s software automatically altered her settings, removing the barriers Gadsden had carefully erected.

“I actually did see that page as something that was not a part of ESU, not a part of my professional life,” she said. “I don’t invite students into that part of my life.”

And yet, in they walked.

Colleges have for years been warning students to keep their Facebook and Myspace pages free of embarrassing photos or writings, but a more recent phenomenon is the emergence of concrete policies governing how faculty and other employees use social media. DePaul University and Ball State University, for instance, both have approved social media policies, and Ball State’s specifically notes that social media sites “blur the lines between personal voice and institutional voice.”

“Privacy does not exist in the world of social media,” Ball State’s policy says. “Consider what could happen if a post becomes widely known and how that may reflect both on the poster and the university.”

East Stroudsburg does not have a social media policy, and university officials were unable, on Monday, to point toward a specific policy that Gadsden may have violated through her postings. Prior to her meeting with administrators to discuss the postings, Gadsden said, “I have never been told by my department chair or any administrator about any specific guidelines about social media.”

University officials emphasized that Gadsden was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation, which -- unlike suspension -- is not considered a disciplinary action.

Alabama Shootings Inform Response

Faculty may make efforts to preserve their private lives, but professors really have “24-7” jobs and can never fully distance themselves from their identities as educators held to high standards, said Brad Ward, who advises colleges on using social media.

“Anybody who is representing an institution is an extension of that brand,” said Ward, chief executive officer of BlueFuego. “Everyone should be aware at this point that what you put on the Internet isn’t always private.”

But what exactly can be discerned from a faculty member’s Facebook postings or a 140-character “tweet”? When considering matters of campus security, such limited information needs to be analyzed in the context of a larger profile of the professor, according to Ann Franke, who consults with colleges nationally on issues of risk management. A college examining threats should be examining a host of issues, including whether a faculty member has experienced a professional failure or exhibited behavioral changes, Franke said.

"A good threat assessment process takes that person’s life into context, not just the words," said Franke, president of Wise Results LLC.

There is also evidence to suggest Gadsden's intended audience interpreted her postings as jokes. One friend said she was "ROFL," or "rolling on the floor laughing," upon reading Gadsden's request for a hit man.

While not taking a position on East Stroudsburg’s response, Franke noted that colleges often have a tendency to overreact in the wake of tragedies. There is little doubt that the recent shootings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville were in the back of administrators’ minds as they evaluated whether Gadsden’s postings constituted a threat. Indeed, Gadsden said that when she met with administrators to discuss the postings they specifically mentioned Amy Bishop, the Huntsville professor charged in the killings of three professors on the campus last month.

“Given the climate of security concerns in academia, the university has an obligation to take all threats seriously and act accordingly,” Marilyn Wells, East Stroudsburg’s interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, said in a written statement. “The university’s knowledge of the online statements comes with a responsibility to act in a manner that ensures the safety of our students, employees and our campus community.”

In such a “hypersensitive” environment, it’s reasonable to conclude that universities would have a formal response any time someone raises safety concerns in good faith, said Brett Sokolow, managing partner for the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. Universities are trying to create a culture of awareness about campus safety, and if they didn’t respond to concerns “it would tell the community, ‘Hey we don’t take these things seriously, so why call us?' ”

While Gadsden thinks her university overreacted, she said she can appreciate why some response was necessary.

“If something happens and they didn’t do anything about it, they have students and parents who are going to be suing them,” she said.

Gadsden said she plans to file a formal grievance contesting her administrative leave, but she plans to cooperate with the university’s demand that she undergo a psychological evaluation.The Facebook page won't be deleted, but Gadsden has given up any illusions about privacy.

“I honestly have to say that people have too much faith in the Internet,” she said. “I think the Internet can be as dangerous as it is wonderful.”

Christopher Conway, an associate professor of modern languages at the University of Texas at Austin who has written about social media for Inside Higher Ed and other publications, said Gadsden’s case should be instructive for other faculty.

“I believe that Facebook and similar sites have contributed to the collapse between personal and professional boundaries, which is very troubling,” Conway wrote in an e-mail. “All faculty should strive to maintain a modicum of distance and professionalism, both in real and virtual space. There are many reasons to do this, but the most compelling is nothing more than protecting oneself from regrettable situations like this. It's just not worth the risk.”

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