by Jodi Cohen
The publicly funded Chicago State University has instructed its faculty and staff that only authorized university representatives can share information with the media and that everything from opinion pieces to social media communications could require prior approval.
Employees who violate the new policy could lose their jobs, according to a copy of the rules obtained by the Tribune.
“Frankly, this policy is an obscenity and absurdity and is not tolerable,” said Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors.
In an email sent March 22 to faculty and staff, Sabrina Land, the university’s director of marketing and communications, wrote that all communications must be “strategically deployed” in a way that “safeguards the reputation, work product and ultimately, the students, of CSU.”
The policy applies to media interviews, opinion pieces, newsletters, social media and other types of communications, stating that they must be approved by the university’s division of public relations. “All disclosures to the media will be communicated by an authorized CSU media relations officer or designate,” the policy says.
Failure to follow the rules “will be treated as serious and will result in disciplinary action, possible termination and could give rise to civil and/or criminal liability on the part of the employee.”
In response to Tribune questions about the policy, Deborah Douglas, a university spokeswoman, left a voice mail saying: “We don’t comment about internal processes, but I do want you to know that this policy is under review.” Douglas did not respond to follow-up calls.
Pancho McFarland, an associate professor of sociology at Chicago State, fears the policy could restrict all types of communications by professors, including speaking engagements.
“It will put a chilling effect on our ability to speak in a number of venues,” he said. “It is part of this bigger history to quiet criticism of the administration.”
Chicago State, on the city’s South Side, has struggled with poor graduation rates and financial mismanagement for years. President Wayne Watson took over in 2009 with a mandate to turn around the institution.
Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois, said that the Chicago State communications policy violates free-speech rights and is an affront to higher education, where the ability to share ideas without retribution “is so central to everything we do.”
“I’m sure this will be roundly denounced and I guarantee you the administration will have to back down,” Nelson said.
Robert Shibley, a senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he’s heard about colleges and universities asking faculty members to alert the media relations office when they talk to the press, but he hasn’t heard of a policy that forbids them from talking.
“It is certainly one of the most restrictive and misguided policies that I have seen,” Shibley said. He said the policy is so broad that it could restrict professors from participating in interviews about their research, for example. If he worked at Chicago State, he said he “would certainly think my job would be in jeopardy” if he spoke out.
Schools: Chicago State University