Academic Freedom and Rachel Slocum

If you have not heard about the controversy surrounding Rachel Slocum, I urge you to read the Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “One Email, Much Outrage”, by Peter Schmidt. It is an unfortunate story that highlights just how quickly our words can be held up for public scrutiny thanks to social media, and raises questions about expectations for privacy and the limits of academic freedom in higher education. The story centers around an email that was sent by Dr. Rachel Slocum, an assistant professor in the Geography and Earth Science Department at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, to the eighteen students in her online introductory geography course. The email was sent in the midst of the government shutdown in October of 2013 in regards to an assignment that required the use of data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Education Department websites. With the data no longer available due to the temporary shutdown, Dr. Slocum wrote “Some of the data gathering assignment will be impossible to complete until the Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives agrees to fund the government.” This email was copied and shared on Facebook and Twitter by one of her students, Katie Johnson, and the result was a media frenzy.

A quick search of the name Rachel Slocum will reveal news articles entitled “Leftist geography professor at taxpayer-funded university rails at students over shutdown” and “Wisconsin professor tells students Tea Party, Republicans at fault for shutdown”. Dr. Slocum has been bombarded with hate mail and the story has been pursued relentlessly by conservative media groups. Perhaps the worst part, however, was the apparent lack of support from University of Wisconsin, La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow, who seems to have disregarded the university process for handling this matter and sent a university-wide letter denouncing Dr. Slocum’s email and commenting on the inappropriateness of faculty members voicing political views. Dr. Slocum’s response to Chancellor Gow points out this inconsistency, and strives to make a point about the inherently political nature of conducting research that uses data collected by the federal government, as well as the partisan nature of Chancellor Gow’s response. In all, this is a story that could serve as a cautionary tale for anyone in a position of authority these days, but especially for faculty and instructors in higher education. It also demonstrates the difficult line that teachers must walk, and the often conflicting demands that are heaped upon them by students, administration, government, and the public in general.

One of the questions raised by this, and a number of related stories, is the issue of privacy. Would Rachel Slocum have an expectation of privacy for emails sent to her students? Based on the Fair Use Doctrine, the answer is almost always going to be “no” for an instructor at a public, non-profit educational institution. Whether you agree with this or not, it is a fact made all the more true by the expediency of communication technology today. Historically, I suspect that there was more of an appearance of privacy. When communicating through hand-written or typed letters, sending mail via the U.S Postal Service, and reading about the latest news in printed newspapers, communication is slower. The concept of “going viral” is a relatively recent phenomenon that is possible as a result of the rapid speed with which information can be shared via social media. Like it or not, what we say can be recorded on any phone and shared in an instant, just like the words that we email, Tweet, or post on Facebook. Perhaps if we humans were a little more mature as a species, or at least as a nation, this would not really be an issue. As it is, we live in a time where governance in the United States is defined by intensely partisan politics, and public discourse about our differences often resembles a bar fight more than a discussion. Whether you prefer to remain silent on your personal beliefs, or shout them from a soap box at the front of your classroom, it would be wise to bear in mind that your words can very easily become fodder for someone’s political agenda.

Thanks for reading!

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