Social media/networking

Kansas faculty finalize social media policy proposal

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The Kansas workgroup tasked to create a new social media policy doubles down on academic freedom in its finalized proposal. But will the regents who wanted to regulate social media use go along?

Writing instructors consider issues they face when teaching veterans

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Writing professors find themselves playing a critical and unexpected role in the education of veterans.

Essay on need for colleges to engage students on their digital identities

Whether we call it protesting, mudslinging, or “digital hate,” as Chancellor Phyllis Wise did in her blog post addressing University of Illinois’ Twitter incident, there is nothing new about very public, incendiary criticism occurring online — or in person. Racist and derogatory slurs and innuendos happen every day, in our college and university student centers, in our residence halls, out on the field at games. And numerous colleges and universities have felt the wrath of social media outrage in response to a decision, changes in leadership, and other developments.

As those of us in higher education know all too well, we lack the time, staff and resources to police our students on the Internet through disciplinary action. It’s simply not feasible or reasonable, nor is it conducive to free speech.

Our colleges and universities need to take a proactive stance and realize that digital identity development – something that thought leaders such as Eric Stoller have highlighted as part of the conversation defining student affairs and higher education – can and should be a part of our institutional curriculums. This is more than just a major in social media that focuses on marketing skills, or the occasional guest speaker at a student event. This goes beyond our coaches handing out guidelines to athletes.

This is student affairs and academic leadership making a commitment to offer educational outreach and resources to students campus-wide, ideally through first-year courses, so that all freshmen benefit. Colleges are increasingly offering classes that cover important topics like financial literacy, as part of their orientation classes for incoming students. What if more colleges and universities devoted some orientation class time to digital identity topics such as personal branding, where students were required to critically examine case studies of individuals (companies, politicians, actors, etc.) who suffered the consequences of doing something awful online? Such an exercise would surely help them realize their mistakes live on in infamy online. Knowing how to unplug and be present and in the moment is another area where first-year students would benefit from receiving ideas and resources to discuss and develop with one another. Basic digital literacy skills, such as knowing the professional benefits of writing emails so that they don’t come across as casual, flippant texts to friends, would be worth sharing in a first-year course experience for all incoming students.

Career services also has a part to play in providing regular, ongoing guidance and resources so students can market their ideas, potential and leadership online, not just their senior years, but right from the beginning, as part of their experiences in pursuing internships, degrees and ultimately, jobs. If you talk to your average college students, surprisingly, some of them think LinkedIn is something that their parents use, not something they should be tapping into to network and explore jobs and internship options. If career services counselors started working with them early on to develop LinkedIn profiles, imagine how much easier it might be for students to research great internships and connect with potential employers, alumni and mentors throughout their time in college.

The pressure is on for higher education to get with the program and be more relevant to what students need to become gainfully employed after college. How far into the future will these hateful tweets haunt University of Illinois students once they start looking for jobs? My guess is forever. How will these students, many of whom have grown up in a highly digitized world where communication is immediate and readily shared through numerous technologies, realize their potential as online ambassadors without some sort of educational outreach?

The other glaring part of the weird, uncertain, ever-changing journey of social media is that these problems — which range from online gaffes and faux pas to blatant racism and sexism – are not just limited to our students. Our faculty and staff are struggling with digital engagement and how to share their thoughts and ideas online in ways that don’t damage their reputations and that of our colleges and universities. There are plenty of examples of educators being reprimanded or even fired because of poor behavior on social media. Perhaps that’s why higher education has been slow to address the need for digital identity development. Many of us employed at our institutions are grappling with the best way to use social media, at a time when technology is transforming our industry. We’ve yet to really tap into a universal, comprehensive way to address this issue at most of our colleges and universities. To bring things full circle and make digital identity development fully integrated into higher education, we need to provide more training for faculty and staff, so they have a better understanding of why digital identity matters. That’s got to be part of the mix.

As Chancellor Wise wrote, “we still have work to do” in response to the University of Illinois incident. And that work must go beyond one-time disciplinary actions to address something larger, something that is fundamentally lacking at most of our institutions: providing digital identity development educational outreach and support to our campus communities, across the board.

Becca Ramspott is a communications specialist at Frostburg State University.

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Essay criticizes new Kansas policy on use of social media by university employees

For decades, the Supreme Court has kept vigil over the campuses of state universities as, in the words of one memorable 1995 ruling, "peculiarly the marketplace for ideas." No opinion, the Supreme Court has emphasized, is too challenging or unsettling that it can be banned from the college classroom.

Forget the classroom – professors today are fortunate if they can be safe from punishment for an unkind word posted from a home computer on a personal, off-campus blog.

The Kansas Board of Regents triggered academic-freedom alarm bells across America last month with a hastily adopted revision to university personnel policies that makes “improper use of social media” grounds for discipline up to and including termination. (While the board this week ordered a review of the policy, it remains in place.)

While described as a restriction on “social” media, the policy is nothing of the sort. By its own terms, the policy is an assertion of college authority over “any facility for online publication and commentary.” (Kansans, think twice before pushing “send” in the comments section of this article.)

The breathtaking sweep of the regulation – it seemingly would confer jurisdiction over every online appearance, from an interview with Slate magazine to an academic article in a science journal – evidences an eagerness to control the off-the-clock lives of employees that is itself cause for suspicion.

The policy purports to create two categories of online speech. Speech made “pursuant to” or “in furtherance of” official duties is subject to essentially complete regulation, and penalties up to firing may be imposed for any speech deemed “contrary to the best interest” of the institution.

All other online speech is punishable if it adversely affects the workplace, but only after a “balancing analysis” that considers the institution’s interests in “efficiency” against the employee’s interest in addressing matters of public concern.

These categories roughly track the Supreme Court’s employee-speech jurisprudence. But the Kansas regulation dangerously oversimplifies the law of employee First Amendment rights in ways that invite abuse.

The Court’s 1968 ruling in Pickering v. Board of Education marks the headwaters of public employee First Amendment protection. There, in the case of an Illinois teacher fired for a letter to the editor about a school bond issue, the court coined its “Pickering balancing test” to determine whether employee speech may lawfully be punished.

The test requires weighing “the interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern” against “the interest of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”

Pickering was curtailed in the 2006 ruling, Garcetti v. Ceballos, involving a California prosecutor fired over an internal memo critical of the way the police department handled evidence. The Garcetti case essentially recognized that, when a dispute involves speech contained in an official work assignment, that is the government’s speech and not the individual’s. Accordingly, the individual cannot claim a First Amendment violation if the speech displeases a supervisor, and no balancing of interests is even necessary.

Although some lower courts have expansively applied Garcetti in dubiously supportable ways, it’s essential to recognize just how narrow the Garcetti decision really is.

Properly understood, Garcetti applies only where the speech itself is a work assignment – not where the speech is about work responsibilities. Prosecutor Richard Ceballos lost his First Amendment case because his speech came in a memo he was assigned to write. The same message in an interview with The Los Angeles Times – or on Facebook – might well have been protected.

Indeed, the Supreme Court painstakingly made the distinction in Garcetti between speech that “concerned the subject matter” of an employee’s work (which remains highly protected) versus speech “pursuant to” official duties, which Garcetti left unprotected.

Importing the Garcetti standard into the employment policies of Kansas universities raises two principal legal concerns.

The first is why Garcetti language belongs in a policy about off-hours social media activity at all. Few positions at a university require creating social media as part of official job duties. For the few that do, the Kansas policy is unnecessary. If you are the employee in charge of managing the university’s Facebook page, doing that job badly has always been grounds for removal.

Enactment of a new regulation suggests something more – a desire to extend authority over social media activity that is not a part of the employee’s job. The portentous descriptive – that the college may freely regulate speech “in furtherance of” official duties – is especially ominous for employees (read, faculty) for whom speaking and publishing is an expected credential-builder.

A researcher at Hawaii Pacific University recently created the “Faculty Media Impact Project” (call it “Klout for Kollege”), which attempts to measure individual professors’ influence by online references to their work, including mentions on social media. (Evidencing the blurry line between professors’ online visibility and their institutions, Southern Methodist University recently issued a news release boasting of its #2 national ranking – far outdistancing #17 Harvard – in the inaugural “impact” scores.)

No university employee, particularly not a teaching employee, can be secure of the boundaries where speech “in furtherance of” official duties ends and personal speech begins. That’s a problem.

Restrictions on the content of speech must be so clear and so specific that a speaker can be certain he is protected. Otherwise, speakers will censor themselves for fear of crossing indistinct boundaries.

The second and more legally intriguing concern is whether Garcetti can legitimately be applied to teaching faculty without running afoul of academic freedom.

Two of the 12 federal geographic circuits have recently said no. In September, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in Demers v. Austin, involving disciplinary action against a Washington State University professor, that “Garcetti does not — indeed, consistent with the First Amendment, cannot — apply to teaching and academic writing.” The ruling echoes a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Adams v. Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Decisions from three other federal circuits – the Third, Sixth and Seventh – suggest to the contrary that professors receive no special forgiveness from Garcetti.

By embracing without qualification the Garcetti level of authority over all employee speech, the Kansas Board of Regents inevitably has teed up a future case in its own Tenth Circuit, which has yet to speak to the issue.

Dissenting in the Garcetti case, Justice David Souter prophetically warned that employers would simply broaden employees’ job descriptions so that virtually any speech about the agency came within their official duties. This is no idle fear in the university setting.

To give one concrete example, it is the responsibility of nearly every university employee with a supervisory position – a dean, a coach, a club sponsor – to notify campus authorities upon learning that a student was sexually assaulted. Arguably, complaining in a blog that the college fails to diligently pursue and punish rapists might be speech pursuant to official duties, and consequently, grounds for termination at a supervisor’s complete discretion.

The context in which the Board of Regents enacted this hurry-up policy cannot be overlooked. It came in response to the suspension of  David W. Guth, a University of Kansas journalism professor, for an angry outburst on a personal Twitter account blaming the National Rifle Association for the fatal shooting of 12 employees at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16.

Though harsh and tasteless, the posting addressed a disputed political issue – the type of speech to which courts have always afforded special First Amendment dignity, even outside the academic world – and no reasonable reader would have confused the post with an official statement of KU policy.

That the Board of Regents enacted a regulation unmistakably intended to ratify disciplinary action for speech like Guth’s is worrisome. It conveys the message that the proper official response to provocative speech that offends sensitive listeners is to punish the speaker – even on a college campus, where the Supreme Court has always said that extreme views must be given their chance to find an audience (or, as in Guth’s case, to be discredited).

At its heart, the Kansas policy exemplifies a larger problem afflicting all of government – the hair-trigger use of punitive authority whenever the agency’s public image is imperiled. At many, if not most, government agencies today, it is easier to get fired for making the agency look bad than for actually doing your job badly.

The media is filled with stories of police officers, firefighters and teachers who have lost their jobs for entirely legal activity on social media that their supervisors consider “unprofessional.”

The public would justifiably rebel against a “24/7 optimal conduct code” that made it a punishable offense for a teacher to wear a sexy Halloween costume to the shopping mall or enjoy a cocktail in a local restaurant. But let the teacher share a photo of that moment on Facebook, and the same harmless behavior that was publicly viewable to the community in the real world is pronounced to be “bad judgment” and grounds for termination.

Frank D. LoMonte is executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an advocate for the First Amendment rights of students and educators.

A Twitter skeptic experiments and buys in (essay)

Jack Schneider didn't think Twitter could possibly improve his scholarly work. But a challenge from a colleague led him to experiment, and he explains why it's now part of his public engagement.

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Blogs aim to bring light to hateful speech online

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Blogs at two universities aim to promote tolerance by highlighting insensitive and offensive comments posted on social media.

Survey examines how prospective students use social media to research colleges

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Survey shows that prospective students use Facebook more than any other network to research colleges, and they're looking primarily to interact with current students and admissions officers.

Marketing experts praise unusual website about Oberlin

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Two staffers at Oberlin, working off hours, created website promoting their alma mater. Every line features a word most colleges would never use in their marketing.

Skin in the Game

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To encourage the success of a student start-up focused on higher education issues, the U. of Rochester struck an uncommon deal that would give it an equity stake in the company.

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