A professor tweeted about UW's problems at incoming students. Did she go too far?

Another debate about the use of social media by faculty

Controversy erupted late last week when influential sociology professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, who works for the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW), published tweets comparing Gov. Scott Walker (R) to Hitler and criticizing the school to incoming students.

Goldrick-Rab is a leader in sociology and education research—legislators at the state and federal levels have tapped her to help develop higher education policy. She has thousands of followers on Twitter and has lately attracted media attention for her vehement opposition to Walker's changes to tenure at UW.

But in the last few weeks, her tweets have taken on two themes that some consider problematic. First, she tweeted on July 1 that Walker had "terrifying" "similarities" to Hitler.

Second, Goldrick-Rab also tweeted at incoming students (who were using the hashtag #FutureBadgers) about UW's recent tenure and shared governance changes. Some students thanked her, but others seemed annoyed, replying with comments like "no one cares" and "who are you."

Goldrick-Rab responded to some of them, with comments including "University is changing as we speak. Maybe look at info?" and "I thought you want a degree of value. Too bad."

Also in EAB Daily Briefing: A cautionary tale for professors on social media? Academic's tweets cause firestorm

On Wednesday, UW's College Republicans issued a press release asking UW "to address [Goldrick-Rab's] ongoing, out-of-line actions." It argued that she had crossed "all boundaries of professionalism and respect" by reaching out to future students and called her comments "disgusting and repulsive."

On Thursday, a committee of the UW-Madison faculty senate also criticized Goldrick-Rab's comments. In a statement, committee members said they were "deeply dismayed" by her actions and argued that she had "damaged" academic freedom and the institution by making "inaccurate statements and misrepresentations."

While some critics called for Goldrick-Rab to be fired, supporters say her comments fall within her academic freedom—and noted the irony that her job was under threat so recently after tenure protections at UW were weakened.

Goldrick-Rab explained to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that she was "very frustrated" about what she felt was a lack of communication between UW and incoming students about the changes.

In an email exchange with Inside Higher Ed, Goldrick-Rab said that she merely sent information to the incoming students and pointing out that most of them thanked her for the gesture.

She also elaborated on her tweet about Walker and Hitler, saying that her grandfather is an experienced psychoanalyst who compared the "psychological characteristics" of the two men. She also said that she did not intend to equate "the whole of two different people."

Writing for the blog of Academe magazine, John K. Wilson defends Goldrick-Rab. Wilson argues that academic freedom should protect professors "when they make comments that some people think are irresponsible."

He adds that "it is not a professor's job to be a cheerleader for their institution" (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 7/17; Herzog, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 7/16; Wilson, "The Academe Blog," Academe, 7/17).

Thoughts about how professors should use Twitter? You should tweet them to us, of course, at @eab_daily.

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