Skewered by Social Media
Campus officials have always faced criticism of their decisions and policies. But this era of digital speed and anonymity threatens the tradition of civil (but difficult) discourse between administrators and students, Lee Burdette Williams writes.
Imagine you’re doing yard work, perhaps clearing out an area that’s a bit overgrown. Your rake strikes a large hornets’ nest, unleashing an angry torrent of flying killers. Imagine these hornets are a particular species with a special disdain for gardeners holding rakes, and they quickly head for your sorry self. Imagine they have stingers that carry especially harsh venom, and every sting is likely to raise a sizable, itchy welt.
Now imagine these hornets all have Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds. They intend to use them to make sure the world knows what you have done, even though you meant no harm. You may have simply wanted to plant tomatoes in that spot.
If you’re still with me, you just got a sense of how my job as a senior student affairs officer has sometimes felt. A few months ago, I was once again the target of a swarm of hornets skilled in social media, and recovery has been slow. I still have some welts.
But first, let me go back in time to my own undergraduate days, a strategy I often use in my efforts to understand the students I work with. I was, for a year, the editor of my small college newspaper. I wrote a regular column in which I criticized the weather, the athletic program, the food, the cost of tuition, basically anything the administration could be blamed for.
I was a very typical student in that regard. I just happened to measure my complaints in column inches. I recently uncovered a box of those newspapers and reread my columns, along with the particularly snarky April Fools edition. I was struck by how often I used “the administration” as a term — the nameless, faceless bureaucracy that managed the day-to-day operations of my not-terribly bureaucratic institution. We were, after all, a student body of 1,100 in a tiny Massachusetts town. How nameless and faceless could anyone be?
My snark, however, ended there. Unless someone mailed one of our issues to somebody off-campus, no one outside our insular community ever read a word I wrote. Even now, you could not Google the names of any people I mentioned and discover them in the archived pages of the 1982-83 Tartan. For that, I am grateful. As I read some of my columns, I was embarrassed at my naiveté, my insolence, my lack of perspective. I hope the targets of my snide comments forgave and forgot.
We do not live in that world anymore, a harsh truth that people in positions of authority or influence are often reminded of. We live in a world where every college administrator’s decisions, emails, words can be instantly made available and critiqued online, not just by the students whose lives are directly impacted by those decisions or activities, but by every alum, parent, friend and, weirdly, unconnected strangers who just like a spectacle.
Cyber-harassment is not a new phenomenon, but increasingly ugly examples appear every day.
In her recent powerful essay on the risks of being an online presence, the writer Amanda Hess explores the gendered implications of online discourse and resultant harassment. Hers is one of many essays and articles over the past couple of years that deconstruct the power and damaging effects of those who take to the Internet to spread rumors, to argue, to bully, to threaten.
She is, as she observes, someone who makes her living online, and she recognizes her role in making herself a target of critics (the sick stalkers she describes are in a different category altogether). While no one deserves the vile threats Hess receives from anonymous posters, she has entered a boxing ring of her own volition, and the punches she endures, whether “fair” or below the belt, are the high price of doing business as a provocative essayist in a 24/7 online world.
Even in the pages of supposedly learned communities like this one, harsh and personalized responses appear among the thoughtful intellectual responses to an essay or news story. It is the price we pay for the power of online discourse, and those who want to share their ideas through this medium must brace for impact once their pieces go live.
Me? I’m a dean of students. I spend a lot of my time in meetings, puzzling over budgets, student conduct matters, staff supervision issues and strategies to improve the experience of the 1600 students for whom I’m responsible. While I occasionally write essays that appear online, the bulk of my work is done face to face. Like those “administrators” I poked at as an undergraduate in 1982, I come to work every day hoping to be an asset to my institution and an advocate for my students.
And also like those, and other, administrators, I often have to make decisions that deny students something they believe they deserve, or mete out a sanction they believe they don’t deserve. I balance limited resources with unlimited demand, so I often have to say no to their requests, both reasonable and not. I make, or influence, policy decisions that will impinge on students’ desires to do certain things, or will require them to do things they do not want to do. I have to think about not just the students currently enrolled at my institution, but those who are in the pipeline, years away from matriculation. I have to consider my successor, and his or her successor, and make difficult choices rather than kick those cans as far down the road as possible.
For all of these actions I am accountable, and for some of them I am criticized by students or colleagues. That is the price of doing business from this seat, and a reasonable price to pay for the many benefits I accrue doing work I enjoy with people I respect for a cause I believe in. I have worked my way up through the ranks of administration and try always to be mindful of the impact my decisions have on those who report to me as well as the students for whom we are jointly responsible.
But I occasionally poke a rake into a hornets’ nest. Sometimes it’s inadvertent, and other times it’s intentional and I know what I am about to unleash. But the landscape has changed in ways that make that dynamic so much more destructive and ugly than it ever was when I was a student or a young professional. I have been, I realize, skewered by social media often enough to the point where (to return to my gardening metaphor) I might step into my backyard only if I were encased in a full-body, helmeted hornet-proof suit.
Here’s how it works, and I suspect this pattern will feel familiar not just to those in my profession, but to anyone who has ever had a public presence that required the occasional controversial decision.
First, a decision is made, or an action completed, and then it is announced. It doesn’t matter much that it might have been a very carefully considered decision or action. If it makes anyone unhappy, the battle is joined. Students get word of the decision or action, which, depending on the source, might or might not be accurate. But let’s assume the initial information is accurate. The meal plan will be altered. A residence hall will be converted to first-year students only. The hours of the fitness center will change. A student organization will be held accountable for some transgression. The cable TV package will be reduced. Or increased.
Next, a flurry of emails will arrive in my inbox expressing concern, anger, confusion.
“How could this happen?”
“Who did you consult?”
“This is not in students’ best interests!”
I will politely and thoroughly respond to each of these, believing that students deserve as much transparency as I can provide.
Meanwhile, other emails, texts and Facebook posts will begin, with students sharing information, accurate and inaccurate. On my campus, as on many, there is a Facebook page on which students can post anonymous opinions. These opinions might be reasonable, or they may be hate-filled, profane mini-screeds about the college, the administration, or me personally.
Other anonymous posts will appear, some of them countering the inaccurate information, or at least suggesting that attacks not be so personal. After all, some students might recall that I have been helpful to them at some point and don’t deserve to be called vile names. Those posts are quickly countered by even more vicious ones, this time targeting the defender. The authors of all of these posts can see by the number of “likes” that they are “winning” or “losing” the argument. The original topic becomes lost in the ensuing battle.
The protesters will also use Twitter to attack the college or me, or both, with speed that is breathtaking. I will see none of these Facebook or Twitter posts because I follow neither the anonymous page nor most of the students who tweet the criticism. I will, however, be alerted to them by other well-intended students or sometimes staff. Our communications office follows such controversies hoping they can get out ahead of a possible PR disaster, and may alert me as well. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to do the 30 other things my job requires of me.
Then comes the online petition. Websites like Change.org have made this incredibly simple. Just write up an “explanation” of what’s going on, create a list of demands, post it on the site, and then link that petition to a Facebook or Twitter post. The petition link may or may not be sent to me. But it will definitely be sent out on multiple Facebook groups that include alumni, some of whom may decide to “sign” it, or at least forward the link to their various alumni groups. Depending on the decision or act that elicited all of this, alumni might start emailing the alumni office staff, perhaps threatening to cease all support of “the college that is no longer the college I attended.” The staff members in that office will now have to divert their attention from their daily tasks and critical projects to respond to these emails.
Students and alumni may try and attract the attention of the news media, and depending on the news cycle, issue or particular interest of a reporter, that might happen. The college’s communications staff will now be on 24/7 alert as they try to stay ahead of what’s being posted on the websites of local, regional and, on rare occasions, national news organizations. If things get really out of hand, a public relations firm may be brought in, at considerable expense, to manage the situation.
Throughout this, I am seeing occasional excerpts of the public discourse, enough to know how far from the truth it may have strayed. I am also seeing my name in posts and tweets, where I am being called things I would never want my mother to see. I have somehow morphed from the diligent student-friendly advocate of a few days earlier into an evil destroyer of student morale. I am, my critics say, singlehandedly bringing the sense of community and connection that my institution is known for to its knees.
To myself and in conversations with close colleagues, I respond to the misinformation being spread. In my mind I assail the credibility of my anonymous attackers, some of whom aren’t as anonymous as they might think. I write nothing. I know there is nothing I can put in an email, tweet or Facebook post that will not be shared, deconstructed, taken entirely out of context or otherwise manipulated to make things worse.
I hold to the “don’t argue with someone who buys their ink by the barrel” approach (despite the obvious lack of ink). I have been in the business long enough to know that these battles have a limited shelf life, that students’ attention will eventually turn toward other interests and obligations, and we can all go back to doing what we’re paid to do, namely, creating a positive campus experience.
From Hounding to Harassment
Sometimes, though, the hornets continue to pursue me. In a recent episode that involved a group of students being sanctioned for policy violations, a particularly aggressive student became obsessed with doing more damage. I realized this when I checked in on some (unrelated) blog posts I’ve written and a personal website I maintain and saw dramatic upticks in traffic on these sites. Nothing on them is particularly controversial, but still, the traffic continued, directed from Facebook and Twitter. The student had posted links to these sites on social media, apparently hoping others would find some “dirt” on me that they might use to undermine my credibility on campus.
My C.V., visible on my website, was a frequent target of hits and downloads, apparently as some tried to uncover past transgressions. In one particularly baffling Facebook post, a link to an article from an online news site was posted. The article was a six-year-old news story about a student enrolled at the institution where I had previously worked who had been killed in an apparent drug deal 90 miles from campus.
The only mention of my name in the article? The final sentence named me as the college official who had broken “the news to students in an e-mail Monday and offered counseling.” The link to the article was posted along with an anonymous (of course) comment implying that I was somehow culpable in not keeping students safe. I learned about this effort from students who were so bothered by this now-very-personal campaign that they came to me and shared names, posts, tweets, anything they could to make sure I would be in a position to protect myself.
But I wasn’t, really. The only protection I had was that I had never written or posted anything particularly problematic. The pursuit, though, was unnerving. For the first time in my career, I started to worry about my own safety. I live in a house on the edge of campus, a convenience I almost always appreciate, but that now seemed, literally, too close for comfort. I drew the blinds at night, warily looking out and wondering if any of these angry students might be lurking in the dark.
What shielded me, in the end, was the end -- of the semester. That’s often the case in these situations. There is a point where most students realize they have academic obligations that require their attention, that their faculty members are not likely to be sympathetic to an excuse of “I was up all night with some friends plotting the demise of your colleague.” Their attention turns back toward more important tasks, allowing mine to do the same.
But with each of these incidents (mine and the ones I hear about through colleagues on other campuses or, sadly, learn about on a news website -- I say “sadly” because I know then that someone like me is having a really bad week), I become more convinced that we are heading in a disastrous direction.
It is a tenet of my work that we value our ability to “meet students where they are at,” that student activism is ultimately a good thing that keeps our institutions honest, that forces transparency, that improves our services and educates our staff. I’ve always felt reasonably equipped to respond to student protests. They push, I push, they give, I give, and through this iterative process, we strengthen our community. They come at us with the weapons of rhetoric, politicking and compromise, and we meet them on the field of battle with those same weapons. On every campus, every semester, throughout the history of higher education, this has been the fight -- sometimes a good fight, sometimes less so.
But I don’t think I can meet them where they’re at anymore. The tools of social media work with such speed and destructive power that before we can gather our wits to respond with the respectful discourse we so value, our shared house is in pieces around us, the very nature of our community destroyed by profane, hateful, inaccurate, often anonymous screeds that don’t even merit the label of “discourse.”
The damage having been done, we -- those of us who have committed our professional lives to building these communities and supporting the education of our students -- retreat. We begin to recognize in ourselves an aversion to engaging in risky conversation with our students, to making difficult decisions, to pushing our students and communities to become better versions of themselves (and in the process, becoming better ourselves). In that aversion are the seeds of our own demise as a profession of educators. Fear has no place in a community of reasoned discourse. But fear is what these tactics have wrought.
I no longer approach the work I’ve loved for a long time without some reservations about the nests, hives and other dangers that lurk in the most pastoral of places. Instead, as I head out the door into what is literally my backyard, I make sure my helmet is fastened, my sting-proof suit’s seams are sealed, and my tools are at hand. It’s a cumbersome way to step into the sunlight, but for the moment, at least, it feels necessary.
Lee Burdette Williams has served as vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College (Mass.) and dean of students at the University of Connecticut.
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