When to Intervene

July 1, 2014

“I wish Gina would die!! aaaargh! I think I might kill her tomorrow! Stick a knife rihht in her! LOL!"

Students, faculty members and administrators agree: If they came across a student spewing discriminatory slurs or physical threats on social media, the author should receive a warning or face some form of disciplinary action from his or her institution.

But does that responsibility give colleges and universities the right to actively monitor students on social networks? No way, students say, according to a report that explores whether universities have a duty to involve themselves in online conversations to protect faculty, staff and students.

At least that was the case in 2011, when John Rowe conducted the research project at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, where he serves as academic registrar. As his report “Student Use of Social Media: When Should the University Intervene?” appeared in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management last month, Rowe said he thinks the findings apply to Western institutions in general -- not just to those in Australia.

"The issues I looked at are clearly not going away,” Rowe said in an email. “Use of social media is so pervasive now that I think society will continue to have to find ways to deal with the downsides.”

The conflicting opinions in the report illustrate the thin line institutions must walk to balance student safety and privacy. From a safety standpoint, it may be tempting to monitor social media on the off-chance that students voice a complaint not shared through official channels -- or, worse, telegraph an intent to harm themselves or fellow students.

Most colleges and universities have rejected that time-consuming and potentially invasive approach to social media, preferring to let students themselves self-police the networks. That strategy so far enjoys broad support. Nearly three-quarters, or 72 percent, of students and 54 percent of faculty members surveyed rejected the idea of more online surveillance on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, according to the report.

“It is clear from these results that there is a very high degree of sensitivity about ‘monitoring’ and ‘Big Brother’ type behavior from both students and staff,” Rowe writes. “This is potentially dangerous ground for universities as it could lead to individuals believing that the university will react to and deal with negative comments on all university-related but student-run sites when this clearly cannot be guaranteed.”

In fact, the surveyed students were even resistant toward the idea that their online rants could be used in a constructive way. More than half of the students, or 54 percent, said the university should not solicit constructive feedback from students who, in a hypothetical example, criticized the quality of the facilities or instruction in a non-university Facebook group.

“Universities are more and more utilizing social media in a mainstream way to communicate with students and even deliver learning experiences,” Rowe said. “I still think students will want to have a clear separation between ‘their’ spaces and ‘university’ spaces and will use each set of social media accordingly.”

At 65 percent, student life administrators were actually more adamant that students are entitled to privacy in those situations. Matthew Gregory, associate dean of students at Louisiana State University, said he shares that attitude.

“I agree with the students that I don’t think universities should be actively monitoring and seeking out posts,” Gregory, who serves as president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, said. “It’s the way to go.”

At the same time, survey results show, 49 percent of faculty members and 53 percent of staffers said the university should act if a student tweeted an insult about them (37 and 35 percent, respectively, disagreed). When it came to students criticizing an instructor’s teaching skills, they were split.

The report, in other words, presents an opportunity for a limited role for institutions on social media -- one that is more reactive than proactive. To help college and universities wade through the chatter and decide which posts deserve to be dealt with and which should be left alone, Rowe proposes a four-point scale and an accompanying rubric of responses.

Posts ranked level one and two -- such as an exasperated tweet about yet another slideshow presentation or a complaint about a professor’s accent -- should in most cases not take up an institution’s time. More severe posts, such as those containing physical threats or racism, sexism or homophobia, however, may warrant a warning or some form of disciplinary action, the rubric suggests.

As institutions learn how best to engage with students on social media, having such a rubric could be beneficial, said Gregory, who described it as an “intriguing concept.”

“Free speech is a fine line,” Gregory said. “Having a rubric with a range of options universities need to identify those level three-level four posts would be a sound action.”

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