In recent years, we have seen an explosion of social media activity within the university. In some ways, this isn’t a surprise, with students leading the way in social media becoming a ubiquitous part of everyday life. It’s also not a surprise that this has led universities to increasingly see social media as an important part of their recruitment and engagement, leading to widespread use in communications and student affairs. What is perhaps more surprising is how faculty have taken to social media, both to talk among themselves and to engage with wider publics beyond the academy.
What does all this activity mean for the university? In effect we have moved from the ivory tower to the glass tower. The privilege and seclusion are still in place, at least relatively speaking. However the daily life of scholarship, as well as the university itself, stands newly visible to wider society. This could prove a toxic combination as we enter a new era of political polarisation and social upheaval, as we can see a new inclination and capacity to scrutinise universities, without adequate preparation by those working within them to deal with the possible consequences.
Some of the developments following from this are deeply sinister. For instance, the Professor Watchlist created by Turning Point USA invites readers to offer “tips” in order to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom”. They ask for video or photographic evidence and many of the existing entries mention blog posts or tweets. While there is still room to suspect it has primarily been a self-promotional exercise, undertaken by a donation-hungry organisation keen to win media coverage for its activity, it nonetheless highlights the possibility for low-cost and crowd-sourced surveillance of academic speech, suggesting something we may see more of in the future. But the glass tower can be much more prosaic than this, with the growth of websites like RateMyProfessor.com, suggesting how this surveillance builds upon what already takes place with universities and can be something students willingly participate in. Furthermore, social media is a tempting source for time-pressed journalists, continually being asked to do more with less within struggling newsrooms. The opportunities to seize upon controversial tweets or blog posts, so easily taken out of context, only seem likely to grow with time.
How should we adapt to cope with the glass tower? Part of the solution must be institutional. The philosopher Steve Fuller has suggested universities who want their faculty to be ‘socially relevant’ ought to set aside a fund for paying damages. This would certainly be worthwhile, but we need to go much further than simply dealing with these extremes cases. What seems crucial is that universities begin to take responsibility for the public engagement they have in many cases mandated. As the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, universities treat engaged academics as a measure of their reputational currency: having ‘their’ academics ‘out there’ is an increasingly crucial part of their brand. For this reason, it is imperative that a responsibility for these interactions suffuses all aspects of policy. At present, we are moving dangerously close to a situation where academics are pushed out into the public spheres, with their institutions claiming the credit when things go right and disowning them when things go wrong. This would be problematic enough in its own terms, but it is entrenched by the ‘conditional acceptance’ of minority scholars who are much more likely to be subject to a politicised backlash and much less likely to be backed by their institutions if and when this escalates.
While institutional reform is important, it does not address the practical dilemmas faced by scholars engaging online in the here and now. Underlying these issues is the well studied concept of ‘context collapse’: the elimination of the barriers which usually separate the different audiences we interact with, meaning a message we intend for one audience might be received by a vast array of others. The possibility that people might be sifting through our communications in a politically-motivated way raises the stakes but it did not create the original problem. What we are seeing here is a transformation in how technology operates in the life of the university and how it bridges the gap between the university and wider society. Furthermore, the political context within which academics speak is undergoing a radical change, at precisely the moment when it is easier than ever for academics to make public pronouncements within it. This is an environment which could generate a new conformism, as the fear of having your words seized upon and taken out of context leads us to forego the creative opportunities that this challenging new environment affords. But it’s also an opportunity to dispense with old orthodoxies and think more deeply about our public role. Unfortunately, academic culture as it currently stands may prove inadequate to life within the glass tower.