In the last few days sociology professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, one of the nation’s leading advocates for free higher education, has come under sustained and increasingly preposterous attack for some of her social media posts.
The attacks have focused on two sets of tweets. In one, posted several weeks ago, Goldrick-Rab twice characterized Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who recently slashed budgets and eviscerated faculty governance and tenure the University of Wisconsin system where Goldrick-Rab works, as a fascist. Those tweets were dumb, Goldrick-Rab has apologized for them, and they aren’t likely to be of much lasting interest beyond the fainting-couch brigades of the online right-wing.
It’s the other set of tweets that brought Goldrick-Rab more broad condemnation, condemnation that reflects far more poorly on her antagonists than on her.
The second set of tweets actually predated the ones discussed above — Goldrick-Rab posted them a month and a half ago (though nobody paid them any particular attention until the outrage machine got fired up last week). Here’s what they consisted of:
Back on May 31, a graduating high school senior posted this group photo of himself and some friends celebrating their impending enrollment at the University of Wisconsin:
— Nathan Stanley (@nstanley8) May 31, 2015
About a week later, Goldrick-Rab stumbled upon the tweet, and replied with this:
Some of the students responded to her tweet, she responded to some of their responses — tweeting that she thought they should know about the recent events at UW because she assumed they would want “a degree of value” and she didn’t “want students 2 waste their $.”
And that was it. The whole thing amounted to about a dozen tweets over the course of a little over an hour late one Sunday night, with pretty much nobody watching.
When the College Fix reported on the exchange a couple of days ago, though, it referred to the tweets as “shocking new allegations” of what the UW College Republicans called “harassment” that “cross[ed] all boundaries of professionalism and respect.”
That’s overheated enough, but it’s become standard rhetoric in disputes like these. What followed isn’t.
On Thursday, the University Committee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison — the Executive Committee of the university’s Faculty Senate — released a statement declaring that while they “support free speech and diversity of opinion, as has been our tradition,”
Such freedom requires responsible behavior and in this respect we are deeply dismayed with the actions Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab has taken toward students and faculty on Twitter in recent weeks to discourage them from coming here. While claiming to stand for academic freedom, she has in fact damaged that principle and our institution with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations.
This is preposterous. Academic freedom doesn’t “require responsible behavior.” You don’t “damage” it by exercising it in ways others dislike. Academic freedom is precisely the freedom to act in ways that others find irresponsible or obnoxious — that’s what academic freedom is for. That’s what it is.
Goldrick-Rab is an active and an innovative user of social media. Twitter, specifically, is a medium she’s engaged with and curious about, regularly exploring its boundaries and potential by doing stuff like searching for tweets using the word FAFSA and then retweeting what strangers have to say about it. Her use of Twitter is part of her scholarship and part of her activism, and her freedom to use it is essential to her academic freedom. Again, that’s what academic freedom is — the freedom to innovate and explore without fear of reprisal.
At a moment when tenure has just been dramatically weakened at the University of Wisconsin, for an official faculty body to cast a professor’s public speech in her field of study as beyond the pale isn’t just intellectually shoddy, it’s dangerous.
Now, there’s a discussion to be had about whether Goldrick-Rab’s tweets represent a useful model of how to use Twitter for activist ends. My own sense is that entering into strangers’ timelines to buttonhole them about your own causes is rarely all that productive in any context, and if Goldrick-Rab had dragged the encouter out or highlighted it for her ten thousand followers I might have some qualms. But she didn’t — she just tweeted at few people who were talking about her university, talked with them a bit, then left them alone.
And the idea that those students were somehow cowed or intimidated by her tweets is contradicted eloquently by their own responses:
— Michael Mleczko (@mike_mleczko34) June 7, 2015
They had the situation entirely in hand. It should have ended there.