Friday, September 28, 2012

Academics Behaving Badly? Universities and Online Reputations

Computer Science
Academic at Computer (Photo credit: Lower Columbia College)
by Dr Inger Mewburn, Research Fellow in research education at RMIT University, The Conversation:

Trying to control your reputation online is a bit like trying to clean up wee in a toddler pool. You are much more likely to get your hands dirty than achieve any kind of meaningful damage control.

Many universities in Australia are trying to define what is acceptable - and unacceptable - for their staff members to say online.

Academics too, are exploring the boundaries between expression of academic freedom and the obligation to their institutions in an age when anything you say or write can be easily posted online.

A number of high-profile cases of academic trouble in cyberspace has prompted universities to try and protect their reputations. But often their reactions and policies are just making matters worse.

Damage control

The latest example is the case of an adjunct academic, Jim Nicholls, who was apparently sacked from the University of New England for writing a satirical poem. Nicholls wrote the poem to cheer up a fellow staff member, Jan-Piet Knijff, who had just been sacked. It is unclear whether the poem was ever intended by its author to become public, but trouble started when Knijff posted it online.

Another staff member took offence at the contents and demanded its removal. Despite Knijff taking the poem down, Mr Nicholls, who had been working as a largely unpaid adjunct for some years, was shown the door on the grounds that the poem bought UNE management into disrepute.

But this most recent case is one of many where an academic’s personal opinions or activity online has caused trouble for their institution.

Last year, then head of RMIT University’s School of Art, Professor Elizabeth Grierson, brought a cyberstalking case against a former staff member, Steve Cox. The case backfired, with Professor Grierson being ordered to stay away from Cox’s Facebook page for 20 years.

A couple of weeks ago Monash University stood down a staff member in a complicated “trolling” incident involving the presenter from Australia’s Next Top Model.

The Monash staff member was accused of making some unsavoury comments from an anonymous Twitter account. The staff member was not saved by the fact that the account was anonymous and did not mention any connection with the university.

Unintended consequences

These days universities need to think about how an incident like Jim Nicholls' might be summarised in 140 characters or less. In this case, the tweet might go something like this: “Dude writes a poem, gets fired”.

As, John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier foundation once famously said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. The story about UNE management clamping down harshly on an employee is likely to travel much further than the poem could have travelled by itself, even if it stayed on the internet forever.

This kind of internet publicity problem has been called “The Streisand effect”. The phrase was coined after legendary singer Babra Steisand tried to stop photographs of her cliff-top residence being published in a public archive of coastal erosion in California.

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