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Should College Professors Kill Their Facebook Accounts?

East Stroudsburg University professor Gloria Gadsden was suspended last week after making jokes on her Facebook page about killing students, including comments like “Does anyone know where to find a very discreet hitman? Yes, it’s been that kind of day …” and “had a good day today, DIDN’T want to kill even one student :-). Now Friday was a different story.”  Looked at one way, Gadsden’s comments are the typical ventings of a college professor about miscreant students.  From a less forgiving perspective, Gadsden has crossed a line and “threatened” her students.

These are tough times for educators.  In the wake of University of Alabama’s tragic shooting by faculty member Amy Bishop, schools are understandably on high alert for early signs of trouble.  While Gadsden’s comments were typed in jest (and most certainly after a long day of teaching), the consequences of having such comments publicly unveiled is no laughing matter.  Gadsden’s suspension raises important questions about the perceived veil of privacy and sense of security that social networks like Facebook claim to provide their users.  Gadsden’s status updates were exposed through what has become an increasingly common experience–loopholes in Facebook’s seemingly arbitrary and impossibly dense privacy settings.  Inside Higher Ed reports:

Until last week, Gadsden said, she thought that by limiting her cyber friendships she could maintain the firewall between her personal life and her role as a professor. But she believes an update to Facebook’s software automatically altered her settings, removing the barriers Gadsden had carefully erected.

“I actually did see that page as something that was not a part of ESU, not a part of my professional life,” she said. “I don’t invite students into that part of my life.”

And yet, in they walked.

While universities have firm policies in place protecting faculty and students alike from sexual harassment, discrimination, physical intimidation, etc.,  few have worked out how those policies might translate into the virtual space.  The ubiquity of social networking has led some universities to pen “social media policies” governing how faculty members should use the technology, but the fact remains that most school administrators are still scratching their heads and asking themselves, “What’s Twitter?”  In other words, until more cases like Gadsden’s emerge, universities and colleges will be painfully slow to create any concrete policies that might actually help faculty members protect themselves.

In the meantime, should educators kill their social networking accounts?  One might argue that such a suggestion is too draconian–after all, shouldn’t common sense be the rule of thumb for anyone using social networking tools?  If you want to keep your job, whether you’re a teacher or a train operator, then isn’t it your responsibility to keep those nasty inner thoughts to yourself?

As a former educator  with a Facebook page, I know I’ve overshared my fair share of thoughts about student misbehavior–from chronic whiners (7 grandmothers dead in one semester) to serial plagiarizers (Echeat.com?  Really?).  That said, I never went so far as to make jokes about hitmen and feeling less murderous than normal, but that’s mostly because my humor doesn’t work that way.   Fundamentally, Gadsden is the victim of unfortunate timing and bad judgment.  Prior to the Alabama shooting, it’s possible that no one would have interpreted any of her comments as real threats.  And–as I’m sure Gadsden is well aware of now–the golden rule of privacy is to never trust Facebook.  Gadsden is certainly not alone in her blunder.  The Facebook wall tends to be the first place people go to vent frustrations, shout insensitive commentary, and generally overshare.  A false sense of privacy plays a huge role in the pervasiveness of this phenomena.  While this oversharing usually leads to nothing more than the constant irritation of your friends, in the case of the college professor, it can cost you your career.

Is Gadsden’s suspension for things she said on Facebook going too far?  East Stroudsburg University is unwilling to take any chances. Following a meeting with school administrators about the Facebook posts, Gadsden was put on leave by the Dean, who was “accompanied by a security guard.”   But according to theChronicle of Higher Education’s coverage of the story, there might be more to this story than just errant Facebook wall posts:

Ms. Gadsden said she believes her suspension stems from a racial-harassment complaint she filed with the university last month and from an op-ed article she wrote for The Chronicle in 2008 about the challenges of being a black faculty member.  Ms Gadsden said the university and certain colleagues felt attacked by the op-ed, even though she used no names in the article and did not say which institutions she was writing about.

As we wait to hear the fate of Gadsden’s career, let’s hope that her case will be dealt with reasonably while also hastening universities and colleges to start codifying some logical social networking guidelines for educators and students alike.  Until social networking sites can provide some semblance of a foolproof privacy plan, following a simple rule like “Don’t overshare how you feel about teaching” might be a good place for educators to start.

If you believe Gadsden has been wrongfully made an example of, you can show your support–on Facebook no less.

(image via Online Universities Weblog)

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