Social media, the academic & the university

If you follow me on Twitter you may be aware that it’s been an eventful weekend. The Vice Chancellor of the Open University made some injudicious remarks dismissing what OU academics did as “not teaching”. He has since apologised, and suggests he was trying to make a different point (that OU academics used to have direct contact with students through summer schools but now don’t, and a more online focus could reinstate that contact. This I agree with and have been promoting the benefits of online events since making the annual OU conference open and online in 2010). The point of this post is not to discuss the statement, but rather to reflect on the relationship between the online academic and their institution.

I am, in general, stupidly loyal to the OU, which means I don’t criticise it publicly, although I fully understand why colleagues do (and arguably, their public criticism is being more loyal as it seeks to protect the integrity of the institution). But as these comments had been made in a semi-public forum (an online webcast to students which was put on the intranet), and my interpretation was that they were a dismissal of my, my colleagues and the OU’s entire history (although I should stress the apology seeks to rectify this interpretation), I felt justified in making a public announcement on Twitter:

So I transcribed the comments and set out a thread detailing my objections to the comments. That thread went semi-viral (around 50,000 views), and was picked up by the Times Higher.

Which brings me onto the delicate relationship between a university and the academic with an online profile. The OU has been very positive in promoting and encouraging academics to develop online profiles. It recognises the power and value of these to the institution. I am generally happy to retweet OU news, job adverts, promote research findings of colleagues and cheer awards we receive. But it’s a double edged sword for an institution, as the events over the weekend demonstrate that a story can quickly escalate.

I would like to acknowledge that the VC and the OU comms team behaved impeccably, despite this being a story they could have done without. They have not asked me to amend my post, or placed any pressure on me to withdraw it, or threatened me with sanctions (as one hears at other institutions). They have respected the freedom of expression by academics.

On a personal note it has also been rather double-edged also. The comments in replies and many others via email and DM expressing support, and admiration for the OU have been truly powerful. I had a big dose of self pity on Sunday, and the support from my network was important. This may sound sentimental and like an old hippy but I view the OU like a close family member. When it’s in trouble, I feel that acutely and on a personal level. At the same time each retweet is a little dagger to my heart as it spreads a negative image of the institution I love. And some responses have interpreted it in a manner I didn’t intend (who knew such a thing could happen on Twitter, right?). For instance, this is not saying online education is bad, or that central academics don’t respect associate lecturers. And these misinterpretations increase in likelihood the more the tweet spreads.

I don’t have an easy take-away from this, and that is the take away in itself. The relationship between staff and the university is altered by social media. This has benefits for both, but also potential hazards, so both sides need to be careful how they negotiate it. A tweet is like setting a dog loose in a shopping mall – it might go to sleep quietly in the corner, it might be cute and get adopted, it might make people happy, perhaps it poops in the Ann Summers shop, or it might go on a rampage and bite someone. It’s a strange and unpredictable power.

One Comment

  1. I’m the same as you, I love the OU it just feels part of me and I have never openly criticised decisions made at any level by the university until this latest incident. I hope it is testament to how highly it is regarded that so many people spoke up . All big institutions have issues or make ill-judged comments. Even in those moments the OU is still outstanding.

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