In the era of social media and around-the-clock journalism, it’s no surprise that colleges and universities have become hypersensitive to their public image. FIRE has long been fighting administrative overreach and censorship perpetrated in the name of “branding.”
These image-conscious blunders take many forms, such as threatening student- or faculty-run websites and blogs that use their institution’s initials or name, overreacting to controversial social media posts, and disciplining public criticism of college policies or administrators. In a recent, galling case, Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine not only censored a faculty-produced bioethics journal due to a risque article that appeared in it, but also created a committee to review the content of future issues prior to publishing—a committee that tellingly includes the school’s marketing department.
Northwestern isn’t the first university to clumsily impose top-down censorship on its faculty. In 2012, Chicago State University (CSU) instituted a policy requiring that all communications and disclosures to the media be approved and coordinated through the university’s public relations division. After criticism from FIRE, the American Association of University Professors, and others, CSU quickly backed down and abandoned the policy. (Of course, CSU has made other attempts to censor faculty speech, for which the university currently finds itself in litigation coordinated by FIRE.)
Now Pima Community College (PCC) in Arizona is attempting to follow in the CSU administration’s footsteps (something FIRE does not recommend) and has instituted a similar policy, according to the Arizona Daily Star. The college’s new “Guidelines for interacting with news media” policy makes reference to the “One College concept” (undoubtedly only the “one” that the administration wants others to see) and directs all PCC employees not to speak with the media and instead refer inquiries to “Marketing and Communications” staff in order to “ensure consistent messages on key issues of importance to the College.” And even if the marketing department does clear you to speak to the press, “[i]n many cases a Marketing or Media Relations person will be present during the interview.” This is simply creepy.
But college faculty members are often public intellectuals and known experts in their fields. They are regularly approached to give comment and interviews on their areas of expertise and to speak about their scholarship and accomplishments. There’s simply no legitimate reason (including “branding” or “message control”) for PCC to be intruding on its faculty members’ ability to perform in their roles as public scholars or to otherwise talk to the press. Such policies invariably invoke the image of an administration desperate to insulate itself from criticism of its own policies and actions. A stifling policy controlling public faculty speech, not the faculty members themselves, is what’s likely to give PCC bad press.