Resources for Faculty
The University of California, Riverside is committed to protecting the academic freedom and personal safety of all its community members, including its scholars.
Nationally, unfair attacks on scholars have increased, often in social media, on message boards and through other online forums. These “trolling attacks” can be professionally disruptive and personally difficult. Faculty, students, and staff are vulnerable to coordinated social media harassment, particularly by those who disagree ideologically. Often the goal of this harassment is to silence university members via intimidation tactics, often coupled with the threat of a coordinated attack that can result in “doxing” (revealing identifying information like addresses and phone numbers), threats of violence, and advocating for disciplinary action from the university.
These incidents often escalate quickly and can be very intense, even if they are temporary. Time is of the essence to notify the appropriate campus offices quickly, connect the scholar with available resources, and provide support.
Immediate Action: If you or a scholar you know is in imminent danger, contact law enforcement officials immediately. These guidelines are intended for use once safety has been ensured.
Document the nature of the attack as social media can spread quickly and can be removed.
Confirm whether UCPD has been contacted. While some campus community members may have reservations about contacting law enforcement agencies, these units can help with tracing and investigative resources and have access to information and databases about national networks through which many of these known entities operate.
Consider the Pros and Cons of Preparing a statement with appropriate guidance and collaboration as quickly as possible, ideally within hours of the attack (if it is determined by parties involved that this will be helpful to the situation rather than escalating it). Keep in mind that the statement may reach faculty, staff, and students in the unit and on campus, scholars in the discipline at large; and politically diverse people in the community. As such, issuing a statement could further escalate the situation. University Communications can provide assistance in deciding whether to issue a statement and in crafting the statement.
If issued, the statement should contain the following elements:
- A commitment to academic freedom
- A statement recognizing the faculty member’s standing in the field (where applicable)
- A statement supporting the research (where applicable)
- A statement asserting our commitment to supporting the wellbeing of all our students (where applicable)
Here is a sample message:
“The University of California, Riverside is committed to academic freedom. [SCHOLAR NAME] is an established and accomplished scholar in [DISCIPLINARY AREA] and a valued member of our university. As with all of our scholars at the University of California, [PROFESSOR NAME or ‘STUDENTS HAVE’] has the right of academic freedom necessary to pursue scholarship and research on important subjects and to reach conclusions even if some might disagree with those conclusions. Exploring challenging and important questions is exactly what scholars in a world-class university should be doing.”
Prepare staff to handle harassing phone calls and email inquiries. Consider creating an automated response and provide them with language:
“I appreciate your interest in this issue. Inquiries on this topic are being handled by University Communications. Would you like me to transfer you to that office?”
Students may be uncomfortable attending class or may have questions about the attack(s). Talk to all instructors and faculty about how to handle them. Be prepared to move classrooms or to move to a remote environment, if necessary. Discuss whether to have a substitute instructor. Offer ideas about alternative student activities while the attack is occurring. There may be an impact on other classes, even classes not taught by the faculty member. Discuss this possibility with the advising team and faculty.
Make sure you put any affected students in touch with the Dean of Students Office for further student support resources, including case management, Counseling and Psychological Service, etc.
Faculty and staff of the home unit may want to show support. Identify ways they can assist. Those can range from speaking publicly in defense of the person who has been attacked to talking through what has happened with town halls, in departmental meetings etc. The tone of any public supporting statements and discussions should maintain professional conduct standards.
Other faculty and students at large may worry about their safety and vulnerability to these attacks. Take these concerns seriously. Connect them with appropriate resources and offices to determine additional needs. This may include temporarily removing directory information which might identify addresses, including residence, office and classroom locations and installing filters to move certain email messaging to spam or a separate file until the faculty member (and University officials and UCRPD in cases of threats) are ready to review them.
Co-authors and collaborators may be affected, as the attack may have repercussions beyond campus. It may be beneficial to contact the relevant disciplinary organizations.
The effects of the attack will linger beyond the immediate episode. The scholar may lose trust in the broader community or experience reduced confidence. Connect the scholar with services of the Faculty Staff Assistance Program, that can assist with any recurring personal issues. Follow up with the scholar periodically.
Be aware that the attack(s) may have long-term effects. The faculty member may experience a decline in productivity with negative implications for promotion and tenure; students may experience challenges keeping up in their coursework. Be sure to discuss this with the faculty member and/or students in the months after the attack. Consider the possibility of tenure rollback or temporary student leave. Keep in mind, when soliciting external evaluations for the promotion process, that the attack may affect the scholar’s reputation.
Additional Considerations to Keep in Mind:
- Large social media attacks are intended to make it feel like the majority of platform users feel the same way. Remember that most harassment of this nature represents a small (but persistent) group and not the majority opinion. Organizations should avoid knee-jerk reactions to what might feel like large-scale criticism.
- Social media and news wire policies allow local events or individual comments on low- traffic platforms to receive national attention. Harassers are often not community members and might not have any connection to the university. Practice care when weighing the need to respond to such harassers with the need to safeguard and protect the rights of community members.
- Generally, negative attention will accompany positive attention. If a community member attains any level of micro-celebrity, negative comments on social media are routine especially for women and people of color. Publicity that might not seem controversial (e.g. publishing a book or winning a grant) can draw enough attention to attract social media harassment. It is important to expect and plan for negative attention when engaging with the public.
- It can be tempting for colleagues to speak out publicly when they feel as though a community member is being harassed by members of the public. These kinds of defenses may also backfire or prolong the period of harassment, however. Reach out to the person facing harassment to ask how you can best support them; they may or may not want you to make a public statement.
- Harassment campaigns typically attempt to force an organization to discipline the victim of the harassment. If you are being pressured to respond to such an attack, avoid unnecessarily revealing any additional information and respond with the university’s prepared statement. Phrases such as “I cannot comment on personnel matters” or “This issue is being addressed through university processes, but I cannot comment at this time;” “The University is committed to the first amendment, academic freedom, and a robust exchange of ideas” may also be helpful.