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Postsecondary workplace harassment policies need to adapt to digital life

What happens when someone outside of the university community co-ordinates a mass email campaign demanding the firing of a faculty member? University policies need to cover this.


Digital tools have been part of the scholarly trade for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated pre-existing trends towards the digitization of higher education. Many experts expect that various technologies adopted over the past year will continue to be used long after the pandemic ends.

The use of technologies such as video conferencing, social media platforms and virtual discussion groups have heightened scholars’ online visibility. Unfortunately it’s also opened the door to new experiences of abuse and harassment, including zoom bombing and doxxing — sharing someone’s personal information online without their consent.

Most universities and colleges have policies designed to protect their community members from harassment and discrimination. However, these policies have limitations that restrict their usefulness when abuse or harassment occurs online.

We examined harassment and discrimination policies at Canadian universities and colleges to identify areas that require updating for research and education that is increasingly online. This examination was informed by our work speaking to and surveying women scholars to identify the kinds of support they need so that we can better understand how existing policies fall short.

We’ve found that where policies do address online abuse and harassment, they are largely ineffective in a world where higher education institutions are integrated in society’s fabric and engage with people beyond the halls of academia in a variety of public platforms and through social media. An update is overdue.

Analog policies, digital environment

We searched the public websites of 232 universities and colleges across Canada for their workplace harassment and discrimination policies.

We identified policies at 129 institutions (56 per cent). Of these, only 41 institutions acknowledged online abuse and harassment in some way. Next, we analyzed those 41 policies to understand how university and college community members might be protected from online abuse and harassment within the context of their institution’s policy.

The scope of these 41 policies fell short in two ways.

First, the main objective of many policies is to protect people from abuse and harassment from other members of the same institution. While this stipulation is reasonable in the context of a post-secondary institution, it precludes perpetrators of online abuse and harassment that are unknown, anonymous or not part of the university or college. This limited scope poses serious problems because the online abuse and harassment that academics receive often involves people outside of or unknown to the institution.

Second, policies that define their scope in relation to place typically limit harassment to spaces such as university-sanctioned events, events related to work and study or any other place needed to fulfil duties to the institution.

This provision opens up the possibility for policies to cover individuals who aren’t related to the campus community but ignores the fact that scholars’ online abuse and harassment doesn’t always occur on official university online platforms. Examples include media appearances or receiving harassing messages on personal social media accounts (as opposed to, say, receiving harassing messages on an institution’s learning management system).

Defining harassment and discrimination policies in terms of institutional personnel and people who are physically on campus or engaged in official university business excludes acts of harassment that occur outside of institutionally-sanctioned platforms. While some policies might cover email, online classrooms or video conferencing apps for teaching, there are many other platforms that scholars use for teaching, learning and research that fall outside the scope of current harassment policies.

When faculty appear on radio or TV, produce TikTok videos or write for mass media to engage broader audiences, they go beyond university campuses and official institutional digital platforms. Without finding ways to address the multi-platform nature of academic work, harassment policies risk leaving scholars unprotected from online harassment.

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Reconsider boundaries

We were glad to see that there were mentions of the fact that abuse and harassment can occur online in the policies for 41 post-secondary institutions, but we see further room for development and growth.

Harassment policies should aim to consider, for example, what happens when a perpetrator outside of the university community co-ordinates a mass email campaign to a dean or department chair demanding the expulsion of a student or the firing of a faculty member. These policies need to adopt frameworks that reconsider rigid boundaries of work and non-work life both on and offline.

Institutions need to ensure the safety and well-being of their members when members are online as much when they are in physical classrooms and lecture halls. Acknowledging that work sometimes necessarily occurs outside of university campuses and on public virtual platforms that are not officially tied to the university would be a great step.

Additionally, to truly address online abuse and harassment, policy and procedures will need to account for the presence of online harassment and devise ways to respond that go beyond predominantly disciplining offenders. Such policies need to protect and support scholars.

What should change

When we interviewed scholars who experienced harassment, they suggested they could benefit from support from their institution’s IT department or human resources. Policies for these departments which enable support for those experiencing harassment would be helpful in situations where the perpetrator of harassment isn’t connected to the university.

This change in focus will help create a safer work environment for scholars whose abusers cannot be identified and whose abuse stems from off-campus harassment or virtual harassment on public platforms.

Creating or revising harassment policies to account for digital environments is no easy task. However, given the wide variety of adverse negative effects that harassment has on scholars, it is important to foster safe work environments that are conducive to students and faculty thriving.

We recommend universities and colleges develop procedural frameworks for working through the inevitable challenges created by new technologies and modes of work and learning. We cannot know what risks new technologies will bring, but we can create policies that allow for more flexibility in scope and definition to accommodate multiple modes of work and education.

This is adapted from an article originally published by Academic Matters.

Jaigris Hodson is an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Royal Roads University; Chandell Gosse is a postdoctoral research associate in interdisciplinary studies at Royal Roads University, and George Veletsianos is a professor and Canada Research Chair in innovative learning and technology at Royal Roads University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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