Bremner Emory UPDATE: Academic institutional policies on online and social media communications

Addendum published 14 July 2009 - I began this post in the spirit of revisiting the recent case of Emory University professor of psychiatry and radiology, Dr Douglas Bremner, who write the blog (and authored the book) Before You Take That Pill. Inside Higher Ed has the story behind the request by university administration for Bremner to remove from the blog his academic affiliation after publishing a satirical but serious post on the need for a bipolar patient to continue smoking in his residence.

One may also care to note that Dr Bremner is critical of the pharmaceutical industry and Emory reneged on issuing a prepared press release when his book went on sale. If you recognize Emory, you may also recall that the physician-scientist, Dr Charles Nemeroff, is at the center of a conflict-of-interest disputes due to his pharmaceutical industry funding and relations that prominently display his Emory affiliation. Although Emory officials disagree (pgh 6 on here), some (including Bremner) have drawn the inference that this double standard reflect a pro-Pharma stance by the medical school.

The facts of the Bremner case as according to Inside Higher Ed are:

In the post ["I Am Removing The Name of My University from This Blog"], he notes that he was recently ordered to remove the Emory name both by the interim chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and by the medical school's executive associate dean for faculty affairs. In the letters, which he provided to Inside Higher Ed, they tell Bremner to remove Emory's name, logo and letterhead from his blog because none of them can be used for "non-Emory business." He was also told to report on when he had removed Emory from his blog.

But yesterday (13 July), Bremner announced formally that Emory has backtracked on their decision, perhaps due to the intense media attention given to his case and an effort by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) taking the stance of protecting his academic freedom. (btw, Dr Bremner quietly dedicated this victory to the memory of his mother on Twitter on Saturday.)

There are likely to be more repercussions of this case and is just one instance where academic institutions may care to revisit or institute policies regarding faculty representations in the low-entry-barrier world of electronic publishing.

Original post (13 July 2009) - Many of you work in academia and may on occasion even find yourself enjoying your job, wishing to go so far as to promote activities or accomplishments of your students, programs, or fellow faculty members.

While it's great if you have an excellent office of public relations to do such things, it's sometimes nice to use rapid dissemination tools such as blogs or, better yet, Twitter.

My question is this: what policies, if any, do your universities have regarding your representation of activities of your institution on social media sites or blogs?

I am particularly interested in the breadth of guidelines. I suspect that some institutions are draconian and require all many of disclaimers and lack of evidence of affiliation while others may, gasp!, actively encourage institutional promotion by any means necessary.

Let's use congratulating a student via a Twitter account to consider a few examples:

1. You have a personal Twitter account and wish to congratulate a student in your program at the University of Foofaraw on a research award received by a national scientific society. You tweet this news with a link to the society's website announcement. This is okay, right?

2. You have a personal Twitter account and wish to congratulate a student on a research award received by a national scientific society. You tweet this news with a link to the society's website announcement. The difference from #1 is that you note in your Twitter profile that you are a faculty member at the University of Foofaraw. Without a disclaimer, is your statement "official" and does it require approval by your chair, dean, news office, etc.?

3. You are the same University of Foofaraw faculty member as in #1 and #2 but you establish a Twitter account @FoofarawPharm and use it to congratulate your student. Does use of the name in the Twitter account name constitute an "official" statement? What if you note in your Twitter profile that your tweets are the "unofficial" musings of a University of Foofaraw faculty member.

4. You operate the @Foofaraw Twitter account by you are either a department chair or a dean. While you still note that your feed is "unofficial" who do you answer to now for an official stamp?

Where I'm going with this is where do faculty and institutions feel that a line is drawn between school spirit and misrepresentation of an "official" message. Does the buck stop at higher university administration or does it lie with the university news office or public relations department?

Corporate America is far more stringent in this regard but academia has always been a place for freedom of expression (well, maybe after one earns tenure). However, a quick survey on my part has found that written and unwritten policies vary widely across universities, sometimes even across departments in the same university.

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Apologies in advance if this issue has been discussed recently in the blogosphere but I'd appreciate pulling out the dead horse for another good flogging, or at least determine at what point its mouth and eyes should be duct-taped. I suspect that actually written policies are becoming more common regarding social media and other online communications that involve universities where one is a student, fellow, or faculty member.

I'd love for you to share your experiences or even any URLs to policies that have been establishes at your institution or others. More than one URL will cause your comment to get stuck in moderation but I will liberate it when I log back in tonight and tomorrow morning.

The days of information asymmetry are over.

But how do academic institutions handle this?


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We've had one examples and some discussion around it (I think there was some on other blogs as well at the time) here.

If I were a cynic* I would say that if your announcement passes unnoticed, you are okay. If your tweet makes someone unhappy, you will be wrong.

Situation #1 seems quite innocent.

Example 2, I think a disclaimer is not needed; but it would be nice. It may be simpler to reduce it to #1. If you don't endeavor to characterize yourself (on the Web, nobody knows if you're a dog) the message is the same.

That said, I think you have to consider what recipients of said message will think in cases 3 and 4; which include the name of the institution in the salutation. They don't always read the fine print and may think it is "official;" for what it is worth. However, in the case of a laudatory item, administrators should not object; I'd be unsurprised, yet gobsmacked (if that is possible).

I look forward to the discussion.


I may misunderstand academia, but i thought it to be a unique employment situation. If I work for Corp, Inc, I am bound by my employment agreement not to do whatever, blog, tweet, etc. If I have an academic appt at Moo U, isn't my speech protected? I mean, even if I publish seriously crappity crap in my field, if I'm tenured, that's part of the deal, right?