On Disclaimers

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.

4 thoughts on “On Disclaimers

  1. I disagree with the AAUP statement that the internet causes “attribution to be decontextualized.” The internet is no different from any other medium for expression: sometimes it’s easy to make a disclaimer (such as email signatures), sometimes it’s not. The internet simply makes it easier to spread information quickly, and that’s the source of the problem.

    The basic problem here is that the AAUP holds on to an archaic statement that is utterly senseless. There never was (and still never is) any problem of faculty falsely pretending to speak for the university. (And even if they ever did, who cares what “the university” thinks?) Really, this entire provision was an attempt to shame left-wing faculty by making them preemptively confess that their beliefs were opposed by the administration, with the aim of silencing them by making them afraid to say so publicly. It was a subtle attempt by administrators to repress the freedom of faculty, and the AAUP gave in to this provision because it was purely symbolic, and never enforced. It’s time for the AAUP and the AAU to repudiate this provision, and to eliminate this nonsense from university policies.

    I agree that “speaking for the university” is a contested position, and not the property of the administration. But I disagree with Hank’s assertion that we should embrace the philosophy of the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, and that the university (and its leaders) should never take a stand about anything. I think that’s naïve and unrealistic. Universities can and should take stands on controversial policies all the time: affirmative action, environmentalism, lobbying for funds, ethical scientific research, investment policies, academic freedom, etc. There is no neutral position when a university has to stand for something. The key is that universities should have a democratic process of shared governance for determining what stands they take, and that they protect academic freedom and never impose any beliefs on any of their employees and students.

    • Your longstanding discomfort with the 1940 Statement notwithstanding, I don’t fundamentally disagree. The policy statement on electronic communications makes extremely clear that, as you put it, with respect to academic freedom the Internet is no different from other media of expression. The decontextualization that the statement refers to (and, speaking of context, the two paragraphs that I quoted were necessarily, as with all quotes, removed from their context) is less about the tricky one between the “personal” and the “professional” but that between the “private” and the “public.” What is new about electronic social media is not only, as you acknowledge, the speed of dissemination, but also how communications thought to be “private” are now much more easily made “public,” often without the permission or even knowledge of the original communicator. This even applies somewhat to the Goldrick-Rab case. To be sure, she clearly knew her Tweets were public, of course, but even here some of the commenters seem to think (neither you nor I do, however) that by tweeting directly to the prospective students she was violating a supposedly “private” space.

      As for universities taking positions, of course they must in effect do so in order to function. Clearly the university’s very existence is an endorsement of the position that education is worthwhile. A university that, for instance, creates an Ethnic Studies department endorses the position (controversial in some quarters) that this is a worthwhile field of study. However, it does not necessarily endorse or disavow the views of the faculty of that department. In this example, however, creating a department is less a “position” than a policy action, as are the various examples that you offer. A policy on, say, admissions that acknowledges the importance of diversity is a policy, not just a position. a policy that the university can and should defend. Efforts to lobby for or raise funds are less positions than necessary corollaries of the university’s existence, although what to lobby for and what to fund are policy decisions subject to defense or critique. Such policies, as you point out, are (or should be) products of a governance process that hopefully adheres to AAUP standards but that makes them more than simple “positions” on matters of controversy.

      The quotes from Cole and Stone apply — at least in my view — to positions divorced from university policy formulation. Of course, faculty members should also be free to dissent from university policies, even those adopted through scrupulously shared governance. So when Goldrick-Rab criticizes the university’s response to the Walker budget, she is, I will acknowledge, dissenting from a “position” the university is taking (sadly, it seems, with the support of Senate leaders), but when she compares Walker to Hitler, the university should simply say we have no position at all on that comparison. They should NOT say, “She’s entitled to her opinion, but we don’t agree” any more than they might counter her view with a different comparison.

      My main point, then, was simply that the burden of alleged “disclaimer” is far more easily met by the institution disclaiming its interest in issues of controversy than by individual faculty having to do so. Again, as the electronic communications policy put it: “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.”

      Of course, this is all an ideal — academic freedom in practice is subject to compromise and contest, which brings me back to the 1940 Statement. It has, I think, served us well, even though it is far from an ideal (and was far from an ideal in 1940 as well) and a product of hard compromise. I fear, however, that in the current atmosphere any effort to change or “repudiate” it, in whole or in part, would have more negative than positive effects.

  2. Okay, I am merely a K-12 teacher. But I have some problems with the notion that universities should NEVER take positions on matters of controversy. Please tell me how a university with a meaningful science department is going to be silent on issues like whether global climate change is happening, or if evolution is the theoretical basis of modern biology, to name just two issues that are serious matters of controversy in the larger world. Might I remind people what happened with Michael Mann when he was at UVa and then Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli went after him because Cooch as he was called in some Virginia political circles did not accept the notion of global climate change and was looking to discredit a major figure in the field?

    • The university shouldn’t take a position on global climate change or evolution, but their faculty can and should. So, if a university president is asked what is the position of your institution on evolution, the response should be “the overwhelming majority of our science faculty believe that it’s the theoretical basis of all modern biology and that’s what they teach.” That position does not belong to the university but to the discipline. Indeed, even the strongest disciplinary consensus may be challenged and occasionally overturned. In the Mann case the university’s position was not to support his conclusions but to defend his academic freedom to conduct his research without harassment.

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