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November 20, 2014

Faculty need advice on e-communication

A University Senate subcommittee has found that existing University academic freedom policies are sufficient to cover the use of electronic media, but that faculty could use more information on best practices for electronic communications.

The Senate tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC) formed a subcommittee to review Pitt’s policies in the wake of several well-publicized cases elsewhere in which repercussions resulted from faculty communications including emails and tweets.

In a Nov. 5 report to Faculty Assembly, TAFC member Seth Weinberg, who served on the subcommittee, said, “We basically were concerned that there were a lot of reports coming through the popular media about universities going after professors for doing things like posting things online, posting things on social media sites, that usually were things like personal political views. … There’s been some concern in academic circles that there’s not enough protection at the university level to guard academic freedom, academic speech.”

Weinberg said the TAFC subcommittee reviewed existing Pitt policies ranging from computer usage to tenure obligations and responsibilities, as well as provost’s office position statements on academic freedom.

“We felt the current policies were not in need of repair or adjustment. They covered academic speech fairly well,” he said. “They aren’t specific in some way that would exclude electronic communications versus any other sort of communications.”

While the subcommittee found no overt gaps in University policies, “We did feel, however, that it would be reassuring if the provost would possibly make a statement of some sort, at least making clear that our policies extend equally to electronic speech, just as they do any other form of speech,” he said.

In addition, the subcommittee agreed that a “best practices” website for faculty may be in order to “just give faculty a little bit of information on some things to watch out for in thinking about your communication strategy, specifically around electronic communication,” Weinberg said.

“There are some things that happen in that form of communication that are new and kind of scary. The way things get propagated and shared is at a rate and a penetration that is just so different than any other form of communication that has previously existed. And there are some ramifications to that.”

Noting that the American Association of University Professors recently issued a report on the topic (, Weinberg said the TAFC subcommittee expressed interest in developing a website in conjunction with the provost’s office “to help faculty make informed decisions for practical concerns such as setting up social media accounts for courses, ensuring that those accounts are separate from their personal social media,” and in arranging a webinar or plenary session to address faculty concerns.

University Senate President Michael Spring said, “I’m pleased that a close look at the existing University policies left this group with the feeling that we’re pretty much covered already,” adding, “I share your concern for a best-practices kind of document or a webinar.”

Senate educational policies committee co-chair Zsuzsa Horvath noted that the committee last year began discussing the creation of digital ethics training videos in cooperation with the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education and now is joining forces to form a working group with TAFC to address these issues.

“They are not the same, but they have overlapping areas and these best practices would align very well together with the work from our committee,” she said, promising to keep the Assembly updated.

Senate budget policies committee co-chair John J. Baker commented, “I think this document was really quite well prepared. I agree that the University’s policies are pretty much adequate. I think the biggest problem is most faculty aren’t aware of them. So the idea of having some kind of educational forum with it, I think, is very good.”

Baker stressed the importance of being familiar with Pitt policies. With regard to the 2003 “statement on academic freedom at the University of Pittsburgh” (, “it states that academic freedom resides with the University, not the faculty member,” he said, acknowledging that was a contentious point when the statement was being developed.

“The University does bow to political pressure. That’s why this came up in the first place,” he said, citing the state legislature’s decision in 2001 to stipulate that none of Pitt’s state appropriation could be used to fund the law school’s environmental law clinic. The restriction came after lawsuits filed by Pitt law faculty to halt timbering in the Allegheny National Forest rankled state legislators and other lawmakers from the region.

A link to the TAFC subcommittee’s report and University documents pertaining to academic freedom is posted at

In other business, Spring asked for input on the issues to be raised Nov. 7 in the Senate expanded executive committee’s first meeting with Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

Assembly members suggested discussing salary for faculty in the lower faculty ranks and priorities for advocacy with state and federal legislators, given the changes in government following the November elections and their potential impact on appropriations and research funding.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 7