Last Friday, Inc. published an article on the Salaita settlement. Written by Joseph Steinberg, the article is titled “How a Single Social Media Blunder Cost a University $2 Million.” It provides advice on how institutions can avoid having to make similar settlements and avoid even more costly litigation and potentially larger settlements.
But it makes no distinction between universities and corporations as institutions, and it gives no explicit attention whatsoever to the central issue of academic freedom or, for that matter, to the problems inherent in the unprecedented manner in which Salaita was, in effect, de-hired.
The final sentence in what I will quote in this post does glance briefly in the direction of policies that would protect academic freedom, but Steinberg seems unaware that such policies were, very arguably, in place at the University of Illinois and violated by the university administration and Board of Trustees. And, in any case, given the very corporate–never mind inflammatory–framing of the case that precedes that sentence, it seems very unlikely that a policy extending academic freedom protections to social media would result from a mandate by most Boards of Trustees that such a policy be put in place.
For all of those reasons, this advisory article provides a case study of why, even if the corporate executives on our Boards of Trustees are well-intentioned, they almost cannot help but advance the corporatization of our institutions—unless there is some strong faculty voice countering that influence by asserting the culture, traditions, and values of American academia.
These are the last few paragraphs of Steinberg’s article:
“The university may or may not have prevailed had the case gone to trial, but, according to published reports, it felt that settling would be its least costly option–costs related to the case had already reached $1.3 million, and proceeding with hearings and a trial were likely to pile on significantly more expense.
“Salaita’s tweets were profane, highly offensive, and perhaps even libelous. But that is not the point. It wasn’t just Salaita who paid a price–his almost-employer is going to lose $2 million, and may pay additional hefty prices in terms of reputational damage, expended time, distracted employees, and other “softer” costs.
“Could the University of Illinois have avoided the whole mess with clear social media policies and technology to ensure that people are aware of the policies at the time they use social media?
“Imagine for a moment that a team of social media experts, cybersecurity and privacy pros, lawyers aware of relevant laws, and human resources managers had crafted clear, detailed social media usage rules for employees at the University of Illinois, that the school had required all new hires to accept them as a condition of employment, and that the school had provided Salatia with technology that warned him at the time that he was tweeting that what he was doing was against school policy. Might he have refrained from making the tweets? Might he have toned them down a bit? And had he continued and posted them as he did, would the school have had a much stronger case–thereby eliminating the incentive for attorneys to take Salatia’s case? Or giving the school grounds to countersue? Or, maybe, on the other hand, if the professionals had crafted a policy that had allowed him to express his views as he did–for example, if the experts believed that the University had no right to demand that employees not make such posts–would the school have refrained from rescinding its offer, and instead responded to his tweets in a different fashion? . . .”
Steinberg’s complete article is available at: http://www.inc.com/joseph-steinberg/how-a-single-social-media-blunder-cost-a-university-$2-million.html.