Yesterday John Wilson published a post on this blog “In Defense of Sara Goldrick-Rab,” which has been widely read (nearly 5,000 views as of this writing) and which generated considerable comment in response. One issue that emerged in the commentary was whether or not Goldrick-Rab should have accompanied her tweets with a disclaimer that she was speaking only for herself and not for the University of Wisconsin. The 2013 AAUP policy report on “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications” addressed this question:
The 1940 Statement of Principles cautions that faculty members “should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution” when in fact they are not doing so. The meaning of that constraint is clear enough in the print world. One may refer to one’s faculty position and institution “for identification purposes only” in ways that create no tenable inference of institutional attribution. In the digital world, however, avoiding an inappropriate or unwarranted inference may be more difficult.
The very nature of the Internet causes attribution to be decontextualized. A statement made by a faculty member on a website or through e-mail or social media may be recirculated broadly, and any disclaimer that the institution bears no responsibility for the statement may be lost. What about statements made on Twitter, which limits communications to a mere 140 characters? It is hardly reasonable to expect a faculty member to indicate on every tweet that she or he is not speaking for the institution. And Facebook pages are part of a fixed template that does not allow for a banner disclaimer in a readily visible spot on an individual’s main page. . . .
Institutions may reasonably take steps to avoid inferences of institutional attribution or agreement in ways that print communications might not warrant. Disclaimers may be useful, though their value is often exaggerated. However, the nature of electronic communication itself tends to decontextualize meaning and attribution, and faculty members cannot be held responsible for always indicating that they are speaking as individuals and not in the name of their institution, especially if doing so will place an undue burden on the faculty member’s ability to express views in electronic media. [italics in original]
Actually, however, there is one easy step that any institution can take to avoid inferences of institutional support for statements made by faculty. That is simply not to take any institutional position. Indeed, the neutrality of higher educational institutions is and should be one of the core principles not only of academic freedom but of meaningful higher education as a whole. As Jonathan Cole, former Provost of Columbia University, put it in a contribution to a recent collection of essays on academic freedom,
no one speaks “for” the university—not even its official leaders. While the president and the provost and the board of trustees have the responsibility and the authority to formulate and carry out university policies, the essence of a university lies in its multiplicity of voices: those of its faculty, its students, its researchers, its staff. Presidents and provosts are often asked questions of the following kind: “What is the university’s position on the writings, or remarks, or actions of Professor X?” In fact, there is no “university position” on such matters. The university does not decide which ideas are good and bad, which are right and wrong. That is up for constant debate, deliberation, and discourse among the faculty and students. For the university to take such positions would stifle academic freedom and alienate those whose views differ from those of the institution’s leaders. The responsibility of these leaders is not to decide whose ideas are best, but to create an environment in which all ideas may be explored and tested.
Or, as University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey Stone put it elsewhere in the same volume:
Universities should never stand up and be counted. They should not endorse candidates, condemn policies, embrace causes, or advocate positions not integrally related to higher education itself. If a university takes sides, it undermines its own neutrality, stifles free and open discourse, and makes itself a target for others who will want it to take sides more often. To paraphrase William Rainey Harper from more than a century ago, a university that takes sides is not a “university.”
Were college and university leaders simply to make clear, repeatedly and often, that their institutions take no positions on issue of controversy and therefore neither agree nor disagree with positions taken by their faculty members, then there would be no need at all for those faculty members to issue disclaimers that they speak only for themselves. It should be obvious to all that faculty members do so because no one speaks on behalf of the institution.