Political speech, our students, and the interwebs: Potential nightmare?

All of us have opinions. Many of those opinions are political. A fair number of those opinions clash with those of our students, not to mention numerous people within and outside of our institutions. And nearly all of us use e-communication to connect with our students as part of the daily course of business. Are these converging fronts that can threaten a perfect storm?

Striking a balance between academic freedom and the need to challenge our students with uncomfortable ideas is already tough enough to balance with our obligation to students to provide a welcoming and safe learning environment — as well as our obligation to serve our employers rather than throw them under the bus. When we are reminded that e-mail and social media — indeed, even in-class communication that can be recorded — is potentially available to a global audience despite our claims of privacy rights, it is a chilling storm front indeed.

So, I offer today’s gloom and doom: a story in today’s online Chronicle by Peter Schmidt that offers serious food for thought, an opportunity for debate (PLEASE! replies and dialogue welcome below!), and some implicit suggestions for how we might strike a better (though by no means foolproof) balance.

___________________________________________________

One Email, Much Outrage

How a seemingly simple message 
to students brought digital-age disaster for a Wisconsin professor

By Peter Schmidt

Rachel Slocum’s problems began with an email she sent at the end of long day.

It was Tuesday, October 1, and the federal government had partially shut down as a result of a budget impasse. The U.S. Census Bureau and Education Department websites were out of commission, leaving the students in her introductory geography class without access to data for an assignment.

“Hi everyone,” she wrote to the 18 students in the online course. “Some of the data gathering assignment will be impossible to complete until the Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives agrees to fund the government.”

She urged her students to do whatever work they could. The rest, she wrote, “will have to wait until Congress decides we actually need a government.”

At 10:23 p.m., she hit send.

Without knowing it, she had just put herself on a political battle’s front lines.

With the click of a button on her laptop, she became the focus of a national controversy that rattled her employer, the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, and continues to threaten her career.

In an instant, the assistant professor of geography joined a growing list of college instructors whose lives have been thrown into turmoil when their words were relayed far beyond intended audiences via the Internet. Their ranks include professors whose provocative statements in the classroom were surreptitiously videotaped by students and posted online, professors who vented frustrations on Facebook or Twitter and then watched their posts go viral, and professors whose work-related websites were combed by advocacy groups for evidence of the political indoctrination of students.

All have had to face the uncomfortable truth that the digital age is testing many of the old rules governing what professors can and can’t say. The viral spread of controversies over college instructors’ speech has placed their employers under intense pressure to discipline faculty members, straining institutional commitments to academic freedom.

Ms. Slocum’s email popped up in the inbox of Katie Johnson, a senior who was taking the course while working as an intern at Americans for Tax Reform, an antitax advocacy group based in Washington.

Ms. Johnson had become politically active as a college freshman out of a sense that she needed to challenge the liberalism she found to be widespread among her professors and classmates at LaCrosse. To her, this email was exactly the kind of thing that crossed a line.

Thirty years ago a student bothered by something a professor said might have spoken directly to that professor or, at most, submitted a complaint to a dean. Ms. Johnson still had such options available, but she took a different route. She posted screen shots of Ms. Slocum’s message on Facebook and Twitter. “Can’t do my homework for class; govt. shutdown,” she tweeted to her 3,000 followers. “So my prof blames Republicans in an email blast.”

The posts, Ms. Johnson now says, were intended only “for my immediate network to see.” If so, she, like her professor, would wake up the next day to a surprise.

On Wednesday, October 2, Ms. Slocum got out of bed, sat down to a breakfast of vanilla yogurt and coffee, and logged onto her laptop. Her inbox was being bombarded.

Vitriolic emails from strangers denounced the message she had sent to 18 students the night before.

Some threatened to have her fired. Others described plans to lobby state lawmakers to stop giving tax money to her college.

“Clearly you have forgotten that the student is your customer,” one person wrote. “They pay you for services rendered.” Another told Ms. Slocum: “Quit your job because you are a worthless douchebag.” By lunch, the professor would find herself up against an entire network of conservative organizations.

Those players—which include watchdog groups like Campus Reform, online publications, and local and national talk-radio shows—have sought to expose college professors for liberal bias and put colleges under pressure to rein them in. Activists on the left are similarly capable of protesting conservative speech they finds offensive, but they have not established organizations that monitor faculty speech, and campaigns demanding the firing of conservative academics are much less common than those directed at academics seen as liberal.

Early that day, Vicki McKenna, a conservative talk-radio host whose program airs in several Wisconsin cities, had posted a copy of Ms. Slocum’s government-shutdown email on a Facebook page for her listeners.

That got the attention of Ethan Hollenberger, a graduate of Marquette University whom Ms. Johnson had met through the state chapter of the College Republicans, which she assisted as social-media director. Mr. Hollenberger, who now worked as a research associate for Media Trackers, a Wisconsin-based conservative watchdog group, called Ms. Johnson and asked for her blessing to write a blog entry about the professor’s email.

She answered yes, but asked him not to name her as the email’s source. She assumed her professor had never gotten wind of her earlier Facebook and Twitter posts about the email and did not want Mr. Hollenberger to out her as the one who made it public.

Ms. Slocum could see early signs of trouble on campus.

Some of the angry emails to her had been copied to the geography department’s chairwoman, Cynthia Berlin.

Having been denied tenure the year before, Ms. Slocum knew her future at La Crosse was already limited. But early Wednesday afternoon, trying to get ahead of the situation, Ms. Slocum sent Ms. Berlin both a copy of her email to the class and a defense of it. “I didn’t think that was so partisan—everyone knows it’s the House that is causing the trouble,” the professor wrote, “although students probably don’t get much news.”

The campus’s chancellor, Joe Gow, had also been getting emails about Ms. Slocum. The senders included Mr. Hollenberger of Media Trackers and Mike Mikalsen, an aide to State Rep. Stephen L. Nass, a Republican.

Representative Nass, the chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities, had a reputation for perennially looking for reasons to cut state spending on public colleges. His aide’s message characterized Ms. Slocum’s email as “clearly partisan in tone” and evidence of faculty members using state resources to advance political agendas. It said Mr. Nass wanted a response.

Media Trackers published a brief article that Wednesday, with the headline “Wisconsin Professor Politicizes Partial Shutdown.” Ms. Slocum, the story said, was “using the partial government shutdown to wage a sort of campaign in the classroom against Republicans.”

Kidded by friends over the attention received by her Twitter and Facebook posts, Ms. Johnson, who had been a member of the La Crosse campus student government and a reporter for its student newspaper, tweeted again. “I feel like I am stirring up more trouble on campus now that I am physically off-campus!”

What had been just a problem for Rachel Slocum now clearly loomed a problem for her entire university, exposing the complexities of dealing with the potential pitfalls of online communication.

Like many colleges, La Crosse is struggling to reconcile longstanding principles such as academic freedom with the revolution in communication ushered in by the digital age.

Nothing in its handbook had clearly barred Ms. Slocum from sending her government-shutdown email, nothing in its student code barred Ms. Johnson from distributing that email far and wide, and nothing in its policies spelled out an obvious response to the furor the professor’s words had caused.

Ms. Berlin, the department chair, told Ms. Slocum that afternoon that Chancellor Gow knew about the email. She suggested the professor follow any advice given her by Bruce Riley, dean of the university’s College of Science and Health.

Chancellor Gow told Mr. Hollenberger of Media Trackers that Dean Riley had called Ms. Slocum about the note, “pointed out the inappropriateness of the politically partisan language, and obtained the professor’s commitment to writing a follow-up apology to the class.” When Mr. Hollenberger asked for a copy of any apology note, Mr. Gow suggested he file an open-records request.

Ms. Slocum says she does not recall the dean asking her to apologize, though he did say her email could be seen as partisan. Personally, she regarded it as an accurate summary of news developments based on mainstream media coverage of Washington.

She sent a second email to her geography students late Wednesday afternoon. “The email I sent you all about the government shutdown was not meant to be partisan, but it may have come across that way,” she wrote. Her email offered what it described as “a more thorough, less annoyed version of shutdown events,” providing new details about what was happening in Washington. It reiterated her bottom-line conclusion: Tea Party Republicans had caused the shutdown.

She offered to create an online discussion board for the class to talk about the matter further. “But,” she added, “please don’t forward my emails to conservative blogs or listservs.”

Ms. Johnson couldn’t resist.

“I felt like that was just inviting me to forward it to my friends,” the student says. She passed the new email on to Mr. Hollenberger.

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, October 3, Ms. Slocum received an email requesting comment for an article by The College Fix, a national publication that grooms young writers for careers at conservative media outlets. She sent the reporter a copy of her second email with a request not to reprint it.

That day, Media Trackers published a new article citing the professor’s second email to her students. It quoted Chancellor Gow saying, “I share your concerns about the inappropriate use of the overly partisan phrase ‘Republican tea party controlled House of Representatives.’ ”

The article revealed yet another way in which the digital age had exposed the professor to unexpected scrutiny: Mr. Hollenberger had combed through the blog she maintains for her online geography class. It linked, he said, “to liberal website after liberal website” and poked fun at Sarah Palin.

The weekend brought a lull in the media coverage, though not in the barrage of nasty emails. Ms. Slocum assumed the controversy would soon die down. “How interesting can this really be?” she recalls asking herself.

Her answer came that Monday, with a new wave of attention.

The College Fix published an article in which an unnamed student—actually Katie Johnson—voiced concern about Ms. Slocum indoctrinating impressionable freshmen. Its comment field brimmed with outrage. One commenter offered up Ms. Slocum’s email address.

The Daily Caller, an online publication founded by Tucker Carlson, a conservative pundit, carried its own article: “Leftist geography professor at taxpayer-funded university rails at students over shutdown.” Ms. Slocum, it said, had “used a required assignment in one of her courses to wage a campaign against Republicans.” It was reprinted in Free Republic, a conservative online forum, and by Yahoo News.

Ms. Slocum received a new torrent of emails. “Grow up,” one scolded. “You are what’s wrong with this country,” said another. A third told her to blame the shutdown on her “stupid empty suit Muslim curious George president.”

A colleague whom she later accused of acting out of malice mailed a link to the Yahoo News article throughout her geography department and to the graduate school of geography at Clark University, where Ms. Slocum had earned her doctorate in 2001.

Ms. Slocum, losing sleep from stress, ignored an interview request from a reporter for Fox News. She tweaked the privacy settings on her course-related blog to close it off to anyone not in her class.

Her chancellor received an ominous email that day from Mr. Hollenberger. “I have a feeling things are about to get much more busy for you on Rachel Slocum,” it said.

He told the chancellor that people “are asking me if any discipline will be done to Slocum.” He had filed an open-records request, he added, seeking Ms. Slocum’s contract, benefits information, and class schedule.

Katie Johnson tweeted: “Soooo some professors are reluctantly famous. I guess they’d better start watching what they email/post!”

Ms. Johnson herself became reluctantly famous the next morning. The Tuesday, October 8, edition of the La Crosse Tribune covered the controversy in an article identifying her as the student who first tweeted Ms. Slocum’s email.

“I would think the university would want to discourage that behavior,” Ms. Slocum said in email that day to Mr. Riley, her dean.

The denunciations kept pouring into Ms. Slocum’s inbox, and she learned from her campus’s information-technology department that she was the subject of open-records requests from Media Trackers and from a local NBC affiliate, WEAU. The television station sought her emails using the terms “Republican, Tea Party, government, shutdown, apology, and website.” Campus officials planned to offer up the documents.

The controversy had found Chancellor Gow in an especially sensitive position as a result of his own recent lesson on the dangers of digital-age communications.

About a month earlier, he had become the target of outrage by religious conservatives. Someone had forwarded an email to the campus’s employees in which the chancellor expressed concern that his public institution had appeared to endorse a religion by allowing students to construct a September 11th memorial in the shape of a cross.

The new furor over Ms. Slocum’s email had donors threatening to withhold money and parents announcing plans to enroll their sons and daughters elsewhere. Later, in an email to a La Crosse faculty member, Chancellor Gow would say he felt a need to distance himself from Ms. Slocum’s “needlessly partisan” comments because they threatened his efforts to persuade the university system’s regents, state lawmakers, and the public to give his university money to increase employee salaries.

At the close of the business day, he sent a message to his institution’s students, staff, and faculty members in which he apologized to anyone offended by Ms. Slocum’s “highly partisan political reference.” The reference did not deserve the protections of academic freedom, he argued, because it added nothing to the educational experience of her students and might have caused discomfort for people with different views.

“We will continue to do all we can,” he said, “to ensure that a similarly inappropriate reference does not occur in the future.”

With Ms. Slocum’s prospects of long-term employment La Crosse already gone because of her tenure denial, she had wondered what more her university could do to her. Now she had her answer. The chancellor’s public rebuke, she says, left her “utterly mortified.” She wondered: How could she face her students?

Some of her peers came to her defense. Donna M. Anderson, a professor of economics and women’s studies at La Crosse, accused Chancellor Gow of throwing Ms. Slocum under the bus to save his own reputation.

“You had no right to send your email: There is a process,” she told him in an email. There is nothing inappropriate about a professor offering her political views to students, she said, and she told the chancellor he should have expressed any concerns to Ms. Slocum privately.

Chancellor Gow, noting that Ms. Anderson had copied several other professors on their back-and-forth, wrote, “I’m not sure what is private or public on the Internet.”

In the following days, Chancellor Gow agreed to let Ms. Slocum respond to his email with an open letter sent out to the university community. In it, she defended her initial email on the government shutdown as an accurate summary of events, and described politics as an appropriate subject to discuss in a geography course. She argued that students need to have their views challenged and protested that the chancellor had undermined her as an instructor and left her fearful to communicate with students online.

“Chancellor Gow’s email is a signal to students that the university approves of their efforts to publicly shame professors with whom they disagree,” she wrote.

Chancellor Gow’s handling of the controversy also came under fire from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group, and in emails and public statements from faculty members at the La Crosse campus.

In a new email to the campus’s faculty and students, sent October 13, the chancellor argued that his actions were in keeping with decades-old guidelines from the American Association of University Professors that say faculty members should avoid bringing up controversial topics having nothing to do with what they teach.

With trust between Ms. Slocum and Ms. Johnson having been severely damaged, administrators gave the student the option of continuing to take the class as an independent study or being graded by another instructor. Because she already had enough credits, Ms. Johnson chose to drop the class. She graduated in December, after the controversy over the email had subsided.

Ms. Slocum says she remains worried that her high-profile rebuke by the campus’s administration has hurt her prospects of getting a new tenure-track position. Asked if she has focused her search on colleges she perceives as more protective of faculty speech rights, she says, “I don’t think I can be picky because it is really difficult to get jobs these days.”

Mr. Gow says Ms. Slocum is being “very overdramatic” in saying he publicly shamed her.

“If,” he says, “faculty and staff are going to have the freedom to say what they want to say, then the administration should also have the freedom to comment publicly on that.”

Ms. Johnson has a new internship, handling new media for Americans for Prosperity, a free-market-oriented advocacy group.

Looking back on the episode, she says she regrets that Ms. Slocum became the target of uncivil attacks. Talking directly to her professor probably would have been a better course of action, she now says, than creating a public controversy.

Nevertheless, she says she is glad she might have inspired friends “to be more bold if they see political bias.”

She also takes comfort, she says, in knowing professors have been made “more aware of political speech and what they shouldn’t say.”

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1 Comment

  1. Mr. Schmidt fails to address the fact that Professor Slocum’s partisan comments were completely out of line. There would have been much greater outrage in the higher education community were this a conservative partisan blaming Obama or the Democratic controlled Senate for the shut-down.

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