This resource provides a framework for institutions to begin reviewing existing policies, practices and resources in response to public harassment of academics and researchers.
Given the rising threats to people of colour, White women and underrepresented academics who engage in public scholarship on social justice, effective institutional responses to personal and online safety are paramount.
Public intellectuals have always faced persecution. In some nations, academics are routinely targeted by media and other institutions, they are threatened by state forces, and imprisoned. Academic freedom is essential to learning, teaching and research practice, but it is also a precarious concept that requires ongoing reflection, support and critical engagement. Academic freedom is a concept that describes the principle to protect the expression of theories, methods and research practices without fear of censorship, professional sanctions, and violence. Academic freedom supports the pursuit of learning, teaching, research and justice through academic activities. It promotes the ability to set curriculum, administrate processes, and challenge ideas without reprisal. It means the right to question allegations of misconduct and a fair process if rights are violated. Academic freedom does not extend to intimidation, discrimination, abuse of authority and power, and incitement of violence. It does not mean that academics can violate reasonable institutional policies or break laws that are just and fair.
In liberal democratic nations, there is an increased level of threat to academic freedom as it relates to personal and online safety for minorities. This has exacerbated inequity due to the rapid evolution of technology, which facilitates the spread of voluminous, anonymous abuse, including the release of personal information that can assist in stalking and harassment online, on campus, and at academics’ private homelife. People of colour, White women and other minorities who use social media to educate or address social justice issues are more likely to face public harassment. These groups are already underrepresented and also most at risk of other forms of discrimination.
When the public pursues professional threats and personal attacks of academics who speak for social justice, they argue they are protecting academic freedom, democracy and free speech. They say that all speech, including bigotry, is an universal right. It is not. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects freedom from persecution, not the right to persecute.
Academic freedom comes with responsibilities: academics should use their knowledge for public good. This means that academics must face consequences should they indulge in hate speech, as defined by international law: the incitement of “discrimination, hostility or violence.” (For online behaviour, see the United Nations Human Rights Council articles 16-21 on racism, xenophobia, and hate speech.)
People of colour, White women, and people with disabilities are underrepresented in science. Other gender and sexual minorities, as well as those who belong to multiple minority groups, face even greater backlash when they speak out against injustice. Protection of public intellectuals who speak out against historical discrimination and present-day hate speech matters because racism, sexism and homophobia is pervasive in academia. Empirical evidence shows that sexual harassment is a common experience by researchers. The burden of this public discussion often falls to junior academics. Racial minority women scientists experience multiple forms of discrimination at work, as do other gender and sexual minorities, especially queer women. Public threats carry additional gravity for minorities who are untenured, junior staff, and those on temporary contracts. Given this context of discrimination, academics who discuss the negative impact of colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism or other forms of inequality are exercising academic freedom in support of common good for all. The responsibility of safety goes to their institutions.
Duty of care
Institutions benefit from media interviews and social media work by academics and researchers. That means equity and diversity considerations must be undertaken to support staff when they are besieged by public abuse as a result of their justice education, publications, media appearances and social media discussions. Media policies should not simply tell academics what to say, or what not to say. These policies must also clearly show measures and processes to protect the safety of staff and students when their lives are endangered.
Institutions have a duty of care, not just on campus, but to support academics and students when media attention leads to harassment. This is an issue of occupational health and safety: it’s unacceptable to add to the mental health issues academics face when they receive death threats, by leaving them to manage public abuse alone.
Institutions can’t expect to reap the benefits of having academics raise institutional esteem through public engagement without taking their safety and wellbeing seriously.
Public harassment should never be the price of academic engagement. Institutions must fix policies and prioritise preventative measures, policy review, evaluation of practices, and enhanced security and support.
How to Review Institutional Policies
Below are some considerations that may help higher education and research organisations tackle online harassment and public abuse faced by academics. The advice provided comes from two decades of my professional work in research, social policy and consultancy on equity and diversity issues. It does not present, nor provide, legal advice, but rather the following resource sketches a plan to evaluate institutional action. The advice may be useful for other institutional contexts, but speaks specifically to universities and research institutions.
The majority of work-related abuse is levelled at academics, however, students can also become targets if their research and institutional activities are put into a negative spotlight. What are the boundaries of duty of care? This will depend on the state and country where you live, as well as your institutional context and charter. Nevertheless, these general checks could be useful starting point for leaders.
Prevention: What preventative measures does your institution have in place to stop public harassment? Does the institution socialise and enforce an inclusive workplace culture? Does it practice a zero abuse policy throughout the year, or only in response to public crises? Are online communications filtered or monitored for abusive keywords or patterns? How easily can members of the public obtain access to faculty offices? Hiring a security consultant to update processes could save lives.
- Policies: Are there clear anti-harassment policies specifically covering abuse following academics’ public engagement? Do policies set out clear examples of the type of academic engagement that is, and is not, covered by “academic freedom”? Does it spell out consequences for public attention flowing from professional and personal social media? Safety policies should be preventative, rather than reactive. There is no sense waiting until after threats escalate to think about what procedures might be followed.
- Information: Are policies easy to find, with all the relevant information, contact details and documentation in one place? Are policies written in plain language? Is the information accessible for people with disabilities? Is there translation into local Indigenous languages and for other relevant groups? Remember that individual staff members have families or people who share their lives. They may have caring responsibilities and community leadership roles. A threat on faculty also endangers and concerns their loved ones. Staff in duress (and the people they care for) should not have to wade through legalese to understand what help is available.
- Education: How are staff and students made aware of where to find the policies and resources? Is anti-harassment safety part of induction for staff? Is there an insitutional communication strategy for online safety and harassment? Regular information sessions as well as booths during orientation week and other campus events are a useful way of making faculty and students aware of their rights and responsibilities. Promoting case studies of what help is available via staff newsletters and blog posts also illustrate how policies work at a practical level.
- Support: What support is available by way of counselling and additional personal leave for faculty being persecuted? Consider that for minority academics, they will likely face systemic discrimination and be impacted by social events (such as police violence targeting Indigenous/ Black people in society or attacks on religious minorities, transgender people and other minorities). All of this will compound the stress caused by public abuse that individual staff may experience.
- Safety plan: What safety plans are in place for academics that receive rape and death threats? These recurring forms of abuse are designed to undermine the sense of wellbeing of academics and will have an impact on their ability to teach, supervise, carry out research and other duties. Co-desiging a safety plan with the affected staff is best, tailored to their caring responsibilities, accessibility requirements, cultural needs and other considerations.
- Liaison: Does the university have well-trained liaisons to help staff in reporting threats to police and other authorities on and off-campus? Are they equipped with culturally relevant courses of action? Indigenous people, disabled staff, religious groups, racial and cultural minorities, transgender people and other gender minorities may need specialied assistance. For example, a support worker who is the same-gender and/or same ethnicity to help them navigate trauma. Multiple liaison staff are likely needed to provide specialised support to diverse workforces. Where requested by the affected staff member, a liaison could also support discussions and negotiation of administrative processes with managers or team members. This can reduce stress, by diminishing the need for a traumatised staff member to keep repeating the abuse to multiple parties.
- Investigation: What is the process for investigating online harassment and personal safety threats on campus? What measures are in place where staff are targeted for their media appearances after hours or at home? Duty of care should be holistic.
- Resources: What other resources are in place, such as extra security on campus? Is there an alert system to ensure all existing security guards, senior managers and relevant personnel are made aware of targeted threats?
- Evidence-base: What data collection and evaluation methods are used to review patterns of online abuse and personal harassment offline? Including some questions on existing staff culture surveys is a good way of collecting anonymised information that could better target policies and help with planning and budgeting to redress the issue. Alternatively, staff consultations, conducted in a safe environment of trust, may be another way to analyse experiences of public harassment, to better shape policies.
- Review: What is the broader impact of public harassment of individual academics? Does the institution understand how existing equity policies work at the informal level? Academics who publicly discuss harassment, discrimination and inequality are often relied upon by other staff and students to provide them additional mentorship. This is an indication that existing policies and procedures may not be effective as individuals are doing additional labour beyond their professional remit. Review pastoral care responsibilities and alleviate additional strain on academics being harmed by public abuse. Revise existing policies and practice to ensure individual faculty are not overburdened in responding to inequity and diversity.
- Reflection: What does institutional action, or inaction, on public harassment say to underrepresented faculty and staff? Minorities and White women, who are already underrepresented in academia, are often perceived as role models, especially when they have a public profile through campus advocacy and media. When they are attacked, other underrepresented students and staff may feel fear for their own safety. Can the institution afford to push away not just the individual affected, but other underrepresented minorities?
- Decision-making: Are senior executives being kept informed? Having a standing item on security threats during management meetings helps decision-makers keep an eye on risks as they arise. Rather than taking a punitive tone, senior managers might welcome an opportunity to keep abreast of staff safety and wellbeing. Utilise equity and diversity experts to support policy decisions. An inclusion taskforce might also provide additional strategic advice, with members from underepresented groups, including senior Indigenous academics, community elders and workers; non-English-speaking migrant leaders, including Muslim representatives (as Islamophobia is rising on campuses and beyond, especially targeting women); LGBTQIA members, especially transgender experts; disabled scholars and peak organisation exectives; and other representative experts.
Staff and student safety is an equity and diversity issue. This requires planning, evaluation, consultation with staff and students, and adjustments over time, in light of these ongoing reviews. Equity and diversity specialists and other governing bodies need resources and autonomy to act. Leaders must commit to a transparent process of accountability on reducing the impact of public harassment and safety.
Institutions might consider that the reverberating effects of public abuse go beyond individual academics being publicly threatened. The damage also affects their professional networks.
Being proactive on public harassment means not waiting for problems to fester, but having the right procedures in place to support faculty. Budgetary considerations, legal advice, data analysis, equity and diversity expertise, and other frameworks need to be preempted and reviewed over time.
Download the free A3-sized poster via Dropbox: Reviewing Institutional Policies of Public Harassment.
Top image: WOCinTech Chat via Flickr, CC 2.0. Adapted by Z. Zevallos. All other images by Z. Zevallos.
Quote from Prof Cary Nelson via Inside Higher Ed.