A novel approach to protecting academic freedom of speech: allow it, but do not allow it to be heard

The faculty and professional staff union at Athabasca University, AUFA (the Athabasca University Faculty Association), has two mailing lists, one used for announcements from its exec committee, and one for discussions between its members. Given that most of us have barely any physical contact with one another at the best of times, and that there are no other technologies that are likely to reach even a fraction of all staff involved in teaching and research (the Landing AUFA group, for instance, has only about 40 out of a few hundred potential members) the latter is the primary vehicle through which we, as a community of practice, communicate, share ideas and news, and engage in discussions that help to establish our collective identity. It’s a classic online learning community using a very low threshold, simple, universally accessible technology.

There had been a debate on the discussion list for a few days over the past week on a contentious issue pitting academic freedom against the needs and rights of transgender people. As too often happens when the rights of disadvantaged minorities are involved, the conversation was getting toxic, culminating in a couple of faculty members directly and very unprofessionally abusing another, telling him to shut up and to stop displaying his ignorance. This is not behaviour worthy of anyone, let alone teachers (of all people), and something had to be done about it. At this point the obvious solution would have been for the managers of the list to discuss these abuses individually with those members, and/or for the individuals themselves to reflect on and apologize for their behaviour, and/or to open up the debate on the list about acceptable norms and approaches to de-escalating situations like this. Sadly, that’s not how the list managers responded. Very suddenly, and without any prior warning or discussion whatsoever, the union executive committee shut the entire discussion list down indefinitely, mercilessly nuking it with the following terse and uninformative message posted to the announcement list:

” Dear AUFA members,

Until further notice, AUFA is suspending the AUFA discussions list serv for review of harmful language and due to a high volume of complaints.”

Shocked by this baldly authoritarian response, I immediately sent a strong message of protest, that I tempered with recommendations about what would have been an appropriate approach to managing the problem, and suggestions about ways to move forward with alternative methods and tools in future. I received no reply. One long day later, however, the following message was posted to the announcement list:

” Dear AUFA members,

I want to update you on the situation with the AUFA discussions list serv.

AUFA is committed to protecting Academic Freedom. AUFA is equally committed to protecting Human Rights. AUFA did not make the decision to suspend the list serv lightly. As the entity legally responsible for the listserv, AUFA has an obligation to ensure the safety of its members.

The AUFA executive had a lengthy discussion about the purpose and usefulness of the AUFA listserv and is actively considering alternative methods and forums by which members might communicate with each other in the near future. “

That’s it. That’s the whole message. Clearly they did not discuss this with the people who were actually affected, or with those who had been abusive, and they certainly didn’t talk about it with the rest of us. The message itself is remarkably uninformative, raising far more questions than it answers. It reads to me as ‘you have been naughty children and we have decided to send you to your room to think about it’. But I think they must have been following a different discussion than the one I saw because, though there was certainly some unprofessional nastiness and some unsubtle arguments expressed (that were becoming far more refined as the discussion progressed – that’s how free and open debate is supposed to work), I did not spot any human rights abuses during the discussion, and the only abuse of academic freedom I could see was the decision to shut down the list itself. Removing the possibility of speech altogether is certainly a non-traditional approach to protecting freedom of speech.

Notice, too, that in both messages there is a synecdochal conflation of ‘AUFA’ and ‘the AUFA executive committee’. I’m pretty sure that, as a member of AUFA, I would know whether I had been part of such a decision. That’s a bit like a teacher shutting down an online course because someone was rude, then claiming that the class shut it down. It’s a subtle way of abnegating responsibility, suggesting that some technological entity did something when, in fact, it was done by very real and fully responsible people. AUFA did not do this, and AUFA did not make these decisions. A small group of actual, real human beings did it, all by themselves.

I sent a strongly worded (but respectful) response to that one too.

Who owns this?

I think it is clear that the mailing list is not owned by the union executive committee. They are custodians of it, stewards who run it on the behalf of everyone in the union. Shutting it down denies the members of the union their primary means of connection and debate, including debate about this very issue. The message is quite misleading about the AUFA exec’s responsibilities, too: though they do need to be attentive to illegal behaviours, they are not legally responsible for what other people say on the listserv. In fact, the explicit or implicit legal protections afforded to providers of such services are fundamental to allowing much of the Internet to work at all. This is why there is so much outrage and protest against Trump’s efforts to remove such protections in the US right now. And there are lots of ways of handling the problem, from direct personal communication to public debate to the establishment of rules or a social contract to calling in the police. Going nuclear on the service does not fulfill that responsibility at all; it simply evades it.

It is absolutely fair to claim that list managers do have a responsibility to the union members of helping to maintain a non-abusive, safe, supportive online community. However, shutting down the thing they have an obligation to preserve is not just neglect of that responsibility but the worst and most harmful thing they could possibly do to fulfill it. It is like protecting an endangered animal by shooting it.

Ironically, the final message posted on the now-dead discussion list ended with the line:

“One thing I vowed to myself… is that I would never let anyone stop me from saying what I have to say “

Well, that kept like milk.

I feel incensed, abused, and suddenly incredibly isolated from my university and my colleagues. My sense of loss is tangible and intense. It’s lucky that I do have other channels, like this one, to vent my frustration and to bring this to a broader audience. I hope this message gets to at least a few of those who, like me, are feeling cut off and disempowered and, if they have not done so already, that they loudly voice their concerns to those responsible.

Moving on

Unfortunately, though very low threshold and accessible to all, listservs are not great tools for hosting contentious debates. They are extremely soft technologies which means that, on the positive side, they are extremely flexible and very low threshold, but that therefore a great deal of additional process must be added manually by their participants in order to deal with them: distinguishing threads, choosing which to attend to, tracking conversations, managing archived messages, using appropriate subject lines, to name but a few.

Listservs are poor tools for achieving consensus and poor tools for argument. The push nature of the technology means it can be very intrusive but, equally, the fact that we control our mail filters means that it can be completely shut down and ignored, without other participants having any knowledge that their messages are falling on deaf ears. It’s a technology that allows everyone to shout at the same time so it’s unsurprising that it is fertile ground for misunderstandings, confusion, high emotions, and people who forget that they are talking to other people. The very simplicity that makes them so easy to engage with also makes it easier to forget the humans behind the messages. Unless individuals have taken pains to share things about themselves with their messages, there are not even pictures and profiles to serve as a reminder. Though web archives may be available, they are rarely if ever open for continued dialogue: though, in principle, one could reply to a message from months or years ago, that virtually never happens. This means that people tend rush to get their message across before the list moves on to some other topic, with all the risks that entails. It kind of has to be that way. Because of the push nature of the medium, if conversations were to persist then multiple parallel discussions would rapidly overwhelm everyone’s inbox and attention.

For all these reasons and more, as anyone who has ever tried to do so will be painfully aware, managing a mailing list used for open discussion, especially one (like this) that lacks a clear mandate, contract or terms of engagement, takes a lot of manual effort, a fair bit of ingenuity, and a lot of careful attention. When things get out of hand, those who run the list need to take active, timely, creative measures to defuse them. It’s hard but necessary work, that demands sensitivity, a forgiving nature, a willingness to accept abuse with very little chance of being thanked for your efforts and, often, willingness and availability to work far ouside a normal working day (this, as it happens, is also true of many approaches to online teaching). Unfortunately, no one in our union leadership seems willing or able to take on such management. If that’s the case, the solution is not to shut it down. The solution is to pass it on to someone else who can and will moderate it more caringly, perhaps to put some more resources into managing it and, perhaps, to participatively look into rules, norms, and other tools and procedures that might do the job better.

Moving further on

There are hundreds and maybe thousands of tools and methods that can better (or at least differently) support this kind of debate than a listserv. Even the humble threaded forum at least allows such discussions to be segmented and, for those upset by them, ignored. Some allow for threads or people to be (from an individual’s perspective) muted, and many allow forum owners to close discussions in a particular thread without killing the whole thing. Some go beyond crude threads, allowing richer cross-linking between messages and discussions. Some offer authoring help, like in-line searching of previous messages and direct linking to sources or, simple AI to warn when sentiments appear to run high. Many tools allow for simple tricks like karma points, thumbs up, and other low threshold ways of signalling agreement or disagreement, in a manner that shows collective sentiment without a high commitment or fear of reprisal, and that also signals whether a topic is interesting to the crowd without relying on a deluge of messages to show it. Some offer means to reach decisions, from simple votes to computer supported collaborative argumentation tools. Many allow for profiles and other signals of social presence that make the humans behind the messages more visible and salient. Some (blogs, say, like this one) allow for more focused subscribable discussions on specific themes that are managed and owned by the creator of the original post, and that are not as ephemeral as mailing lists. Some offer other tools like persistent shared bookmarks or filesharing that help to organize resources related to themes of debate. Some have recommender systems that show related posts and thus help to situate discussions, and to support connections back to previous discussions. Many have persistence so that learning is reified and searchable, not lost in a stream of thousands of other emails. Some allow for scheduling and time-limited discussions.

Equally, there are lots of process models for reaching consensus on social norms and acceptable behaviours, as well as ways of dealing with issues when they arise. Skills can be developed in stewardship and moderation so that problems are defused before they become severe, or not arise in the first place thanks to careful specification of ground rules or structuring of the process. There are plenty of books and papers on the subject (this is my favourite, especially now that it is free) that delve into great detail. There are ways of taking an holistic approach that takes into account the larger social ecosystem to (for instance) help to build social capital, use different tools for different functions, and so on.

All of these technologies, including process models, methods, and procedures, come with plentiful gotchas – Faustian bargains and monkeys’ paws that can easily cause more problems than they solve and that will never be ideal for all – so this is not a set of decisions that should be entered into lightly or without extensive consultation, participation, and analysis, and it should always be thought of as an ongoing process, never a finished solution. Clearly, it eventually needs to be done. In the meantime, if a listserv is all we have, then we should at least manage it properly. It is not acceptable to simply nuke the only tool we have, even if it is a weak one.

I do realize that union leadership is an extremely hard and often thankless job and, though I frequently feel very critical of things they do on my behalf,  especially when they adopt an archaic ‘us vs them’ vocabulary, I am thankful they do it. I very seldom voice my adverse opinions because I know they are trying to do their best for everyone, I am certainly not willing to take on the enormous commitments involved myself and, without their hard work and principled actions (regardless of occasions when they actively make things worse) we would, on average, be in a far worse place than we are today. However, the union leadership’s response to this has been outrageously authoritarian, disproportionate, insensitive, and deeply harmful, in direct opposition to everything a union should stand for. If this is a reflection of their values then they do not have either my trust or my support.

 

Postscript

Eventually, after nearly two days, I received a one-line personal reply to my original complaint telling me that the suspension of the list is temporary (this may be news to others in the union who have not been told this: you heard it here first, folks!) and that they will, at some unspecified point, be seeking input from members on communication preferences (not consultation, note, or participation, just input). No timelines were given. I am not satisfied with this.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I was for too long the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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