When I started writing my blog, University Diaries, three years ago, there was a lot I
didn't know about Web page technology: how to change a template, how to insert a link,
how to delete comments. As I settled in to my online chronicle of university life, I learned
these tasks pretty quickly. What took me longer to grasp about the Internet was the nature
of the thing--its speed and reach, the way the connected world can grab a story and, in a
matter of hours, gigantify it.
This is a much more dramatic intensification effect than traditional newspapers were
able to achieve. It's instantaneous, global, and subject to international commentary and
analysis. Millions of Web surfers, interested in a story, will click not merely through
Google News, the New York Times online, and other mainstream sources. They will go to
the blogs, where anyone can chime in; and they will go to that restlessly moving creature,
Wikipedia, which often has the very latest on controversial people and events. They will
forward stories to friends, and their friends will send them something back that they
hadn't yet found.
All of this information-turmoil will yield inaccuracies, to be sure. Things can happen
fast, and not everyone understands what's going on. But what the turmoil's mainly doing is
making democratic editorial decisions. The turmoil represents a collective consciousness
outside the established media, a force that can, if it wishes, move a story up and up in importance,
until the amount of online attention and discourse
the story attracts becomes the story.
Universities are accustomed to operating with a great deal of secrecy--in tenure decisions
most notably, but also in other institutional circumstances. The blatancy of the Web
clashes mightily with the reticent ethos of campuses. Thus the disdain many professors
express for Rate My Professors and other online student evaluation sources, and their continued
indifference or hostility even to high-profile academic blogs of the sort maintained
by legal scholar Richard Posner and Nobelist Gary Becker (www.becker–posner–blog.com).
Universities are also highly localized. For all their talk of internationalism and
diversity, they tend to be parochial institutions, committed to the particularities of their own
history, as in the ongoing hysteria at the University of Illinois over the loss of their traditional
sports mascot. With their inward-looking perspective, it doesn't really occur to people at a lot
of colleges and universities that an event at their school could within days get picked up by
hundreds of global online news services.
Further, professors and their departments are accustomed to generous amounts of autonomy
and independence. Even if they're at a public institution, they're likely to get very little
oversight. The idea that there's now an online city-that-never-sleeps ready to train its
digital cameras on them hasn't yet gotten through.
This combination of secrecy, parochialism, and autonomy means, in short, that many universities
are unprepared for the Web's amplification effect, the way its readers and writers can
reach into a campus and internationalize personalities and events there.
Amplifications, and how to handle them
The Web can take an academic village and turn it into a metropolis. For example, the
University of Tennessee (UT) was caught off-guard last year by a double scandal: one of its history professors is both a plagiarist and a
diploma mill graduate. To this day, the man's
official university page continues to link UT's
name with a pulped book and a bogus degree.
The blogosphere has gone to town on the
story, creating widespread embarrassment for
the university; yet UT has not taken the easy
step of removing the Web page. Similarly, it
took the University of Virginia much too
long--over three months--to delete the university
Web page of the associate director of
their Center for Biomathematical Technology,
a man who, among other things, tried to
run over his ex-girlfriend.
Yale University shows how it ought to be
done. When a business school professor there
was dismissed for ethical irregularities, Yale
made an immediate and thorough announcement
(Tennessee has yet to say a word about
its scandal) and yanked his Web page. Amplification
averted. And about that immediate
and thorough announcement: the World Wide
Web means that there are potentially millions
of people parsing official statements from university
presidents, as Donna Shalala of the
University of Miami discovered when her
woefully inadequate remarks in the wake of
on-field football riots hit the Web.
To take a more personal example, clicking
through university stories one day, I paused on a
small article in the University of Southern Illinois
(SIU) student newspaper in which a student
editorialist condemned professors there for
not having attended a recent university-sponsored
motivational speaker's pep talk. I picked up the story for my blog (daily readership
around 700), arguing that faculty were quite
right to disdain a waste of time and money.
Well-know journalist Scott McLemee read
about SIU on my blog and expanded on the
story at Inside Higher Education (daily readership
in the hundreds of thousands). His story, in
turn, attracted several comments from disaffected
SIU professors, who provided yet more
detail about what they see as the cynical mismanagement
of their school. And so it goes.
Learning to love--or at least
not hate--the Web
Many university administrators and faculty are
hardwired to loathe the loose-jointed, populist,
ramifying Web, and that is their prerogative.
They are free to see its ways as a threat to serious
scholarship, professorial autonomy, and so
forth. But as the Web displaces physical
newspapers and similar media to become the
primary point of news access for more and
more Americans, universities, with their often
antiquated public relations
offices and defensive instincts,
are making themselves vulnerable
to reputational damage.
This is particularly true when
big, violent campus stories break,
as they recently did at the
University of Massachusetts
Amherst (student riots) and
Duquesne (a homicidal fight
involving students and nonstudents).
Student bloggers on
the scene of these events are
often the first to report them,
so that when people Googled
the names of the school involved,
they were are as likely
to be linked to these citizen
journalists as to larger media
outlets. When University of
California Santa Cruz Chancellor
Denise Denton killed herself, once again it
was students whose accounts--of events and of
their feelings about them--appeared first.
The most violent story of all on an American
campus--the massacre at Virginia Tech--was
first reported in real time, as they slowly grasped
what was happening to their school, by blogging
reporters at the university's online student
newspaper. I first followed this story for my own
blog via not only Virginia Tech newspaper
bloggers, but also other independent student
bloggers at the school. The national debate
prompted by events at Virginia Tech as to
whether smarter use of online communication technologies by the school's administration
might have saved lives tells you all you need to
know about the immediacy, power, and amplification
of the Internet.
Indeed we know that bloggers can take a
story and run with it: look, most recently, at
the Ann Coulter "faggot" dustup. As Howard
Kurtz notes in the Washington Post (2007,
C01), "At first, Ann Coulter's anti-gay crack at
a Washington conference Friday drew almost
no media coverage, although it was witnessed
by hundreds of journalists and political operatives
and captured by television cameras. But
after some Democrats and liberal bloggers
slammed the professional provocateur--and
were joined by a number of Republicans and
conservatives--it became a news story."
Universities should have lots of on-campus
bloggers--students, faculty, administrators--
actively chronicling the life of the school, so
that outsiders already know something of the
reality of life there, and so that many voices at
the university--official and unofficial--can
have an immediate and accessible say in the
presentation of its way of being to the world.
What's needed is an understanding of the new
ways in which events will be transcribed and
aired; what's needed is the adoption of a substantial
public online voice that can enter the
fray with power and clarity.
Ironically, many people at universities think
they're protecting themselves by ignoring the
Web. The anonymous "Ivan Tribble," a professor
at a midwestern liberal arts college, wrote a
column in the Chronicle of Higher Education warning against hiring academic bloggers because
"a blogger who joined our staff might air
departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined)
on the cyber clothesline for the world to see.
Past good behavior is no guarantee against future
lapses of professional decorum" (2005, C3).
Tribble's lowly metaphor--the department
laundry--tells you all you need to know about
the stubborn primness of some departments, for
whom the Web is a clothesline on which someone
might glimpse your undies.
The larger story
When I started blogging, I had no idea how
long I'd be at it. I wondered whether American
academia would produce enough stories
to keep a site called University Diaries going.
What I didn't yet understand is that the technology
of the Web pretty much guarantees
that most university stories worth knowing--
and America has tons of universities generating
tons of stories, involving student alcoholism,
administrative misbehavior, academic fraud,
etc., etc.--will leap onto the clothesline, flapping
to beat the band.
Of course there have always been investigative
journalists and whistle blowers. But never before
has a universally available technology of such
rapid dissemination existed. And since it isn't
going anywhere, universities need to adjust to
it. They need to adjust not merely because
this and that story will become amplified, but
also because there's a large university story in
the United States right now involving general
discontent at enormously expensive tuitions
and executive compensations, things universities
aren't doing a very good job of justifying. Americans question the price, meaning, and
utility of a college education, and they're right
to. What exactly are colleges doing with their
athletic programs and student fees and alumni
In the wake of Virginia Tech, moreover,
Americans suddenly want to know much
more about traditionally localized elements of
campuses: What's the university police force
like? What lockdown procedures, if any, are
there? How well-trained are the counselors at
the mental health office? What are the procedures
for having troubled students removed
from professors' classrooms?
As more and more Americans go to college
and pay great sums of money to do so, colleges
are compelled to expose more of what they do--
academically, financially, administratively--
to these people and their parents. Indeed, a
rough distinction has begun to emerge between
institutions willing to reach out to the
public--like Washington's Trinity College,
whose president is one of a growing number of
university presidents with their own blogs--
and Tribble colleges, where faculty and administration
gather their skirts tighter and
tighter around themselves as the online world
leans in for a closer look.
Margaret Soltan is professor of English at the George Washington University. Her blog, University Diaries, is at margaretsoltan.phenominet.com.
Kurtz, H. 2007. The long fuse on Ann Coulter's bomb. Washington Post (March 6): C01.
Tribble, I. 2005. Bloggers need not apply. Chronicle of Higher Education 51 (44): C3.
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