Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Faculty Websites

My college is considering hosting individual faculty webpages off our main webpage faculty directory. The idea is that anyone interested in finding out more about Professor Doe could click on her name, and the link would direct the viewer to Professor Doe's specific page.

Technically, this is no great shakes. Politically, it's a nightmare.

Some professors refuse to participate altogether, claiming that anything other than name, rank, and serial number violates their privacy. I find the position hard to fathom – a mailing of our master course schedule, with names attached to sections, goes out to every house in the county – but as with so many things, the reasonableness of a position is in inverse proportion to the fervency with which it's held.

To my mind, listing recent publications, areas of research interest, and, in certain disciplines or where it makes sense (like art), samples of professors' work should be no-brainers. The point of the exercise is to show off the high caliber of faculty we have, to entice students (and parents) who might not take us seriously otherwise (due to the cc stigma) to check us out. We have a strong faculty, so we might as well market that.

The complications ensue when we start moving from 'thin' to 'thick' content. Listing academic degrees and courses taught is pretty objective. Listing research interests is trickier, though presumably a word limit could prevent anybody from going too far off the deep end. Allowing broader open-ended statements, or links to external content, could bring some very ugly and sticky questions of endorsement.

Say a professor has a blog. (Unthinkable, I know, but bear with me.) If the professor's page on the college site includes a link to the blog, is the college implicitly endorsing the content of the blog? If so, does the college have the right to vet the content? If it is endorsing but has no right to vet content, then the college has no choice but to ban links altogether; the alternative is equivalent to giving professors blank checks on the college account. (This is one of the great many reasons that my blog is pseudonymous, and even has a disclaimer in the prefatory paragraph on top. I want to make absolutely certain that nobody mistakes my musings here for the official positions of my college.)

In a discussion with my department chairs, one kind-hearted soul suggested that we should go with the most open-ended format possible, subject to approval based on 'reasonableness.' I can't even imagine the legal questions that would raise. If my idea of 'reasonable' differs from somebody else's, which it would any time the content came into question, I'd be pushed quickly into an untenable first amendment corner. Since a cc is a public institution, we have to walk some fine lines with freedom of expression. Suppose a professor links to a page sponsored by and in praise of a fundamentalist religious group, or a political candidate, or radical environmentalists, or pick your poison – do we have the right to say no to that? If not, do we at least have the right to distance ourselves from it?

Ironically enough, the legally clean way around the free expression issues is to greatly restrict the venue in the first place. Once you allow some political speech, you have to allow pretty much all of it, and there are some folks who would push the limits just to make a point. Since we can't go around alienating our taxpayers, we have to prevent that kind of stuff from coming up altogether.

Even relatively simple things, like photographs, raise all manner of questions. Should the photos all be in the same format? If so, should the college hire a professional photographer? If we allow people to submit their own pictures, what do we do with silly and/or inappropriate ones? How do we define inappropriate in the first place? I get a headache just thinking about it.

If we could count on a general understanding that external links are exactly that – external – and reflect nothing other than the individual professor's taste, I wouldn't have a problem with them. But in this political climate, that's simply not a realistic assumption. Somebody is going to link to something that sets somebody else off, and it's off to the races. Given that netiquette is still evolving, and that my college and county have relatively high average ages and very conservative politics, I just can't be confident that everybody would read things in the spirit in which they're intended.

Does your college have individual faculty webpages? If so, how does it handle these issues?

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Hi Dean Dad,
It's hard to imagine this issue needs to be as complicated as it seems for your college. I have seen it done two ways: at a large public research university, there was a set format for the professor's very basic information, and nothing much else.

At the private school I'm at now, professors are free to create their own webpages (if they don't, the department may help them) which are linked to from the department webpage. It seems insane to me that any professor would want a link to a personal blog, or for that matter silly or inappropriate pictures, but I guess there are a few insane people out there.

The faculty webpage thing is a good idea. I say this as someone who did a lot of research before choosing a PhD program. The only other choice is Google, and that's hit or miss! My suggestion, given the concerns you raised, is:

Photographs: give the department secretary or something like that a digital camera and take photographs of the profs in their offices, where they're probably not looking TOO silly or inappropriate.

Format: have a fixed format that's the same for everyone.

Information: post their academic CV, which of course they can edit first. That's only fair! Didn't they have to send one in to get a job in the first place?

Links/inappropriate content: hey, it's college property isn't it? You can tell them they can't, I don't know, walk around barefoot or topless right? Isn't it the same thing? You're not stopping them from exercising their freedom of speech on the internet. You're stopping them from using your microphone, that's all.

Or is this (seemingly reasonable) position total b.s. and 30 people with PhD's are going to descend and tell me why?

Our university has optional webpages for individual faculty. Officially the position is that no page linked to by the university's website can be in any format rather than the official university format, and this includes specifications that go right down to the proprietry font that must be used, and that any individual wanting to use must pay the university public relations office for.

This means that all university website content is created by university administrators. They are happy to make webpages for professors, but because they are in control, they vet the content. The pages follow a very regulated format anyway: (optional photo), degrees, research interests, supervision areas, publications.

No external links are allowed.

In practice, many profs hack their dept's website and admin people (except at the level of the public relations office) turn a blind eye. This means there are some rather bizarre sites linked to, including blogs, but since they are not in the otherwise instantly recognisable university format, it is clear they are "squatting" on the main site rather than officially sanctioned.

(I think our system is crazy, just for the record.)
At the Uni where I studied, a rudimentary homepage was created automatically by the system that managed the data-bases containing courses, publications, supervised theses. Professors could put up a photograph, if they wanted, but didn't have to. It was pretty neat for students: You could click on a faculty member, see his/her courses, then click on the course, where a page for the course would pop up, where you could click on the classroom, which made a floor plan pop up.....

Since all the data were retrieved from the global data base, the same sort of homepage also exists for each department and the whole uni.

It's true that some people had a problem with the list of publications. (or rather with the lack thereof.....)

Congratulations to TB and his proud parents, btw!
At my University, a large, public R1 school, every prof has access to a website that they can choose to use or not. I've seen a wide range of uses, and many do link to personal websites and offer personal information. I don't know why, but folks do it. We can't lobby while identifying ourselves as university faculty, and I assume that's as true for the websites as any other forum. We can express polical points of view, though. The University exercises very little oversight over these personal pages as far as I know. There is also information on departmental websites that's more formal. In my case, it's an official photo, recent pubs, a statement of research interest, etc.

It seems like a much bigger deal than necessary is being made of this.
Our university uses standard format: professional headshot, name, contact information (email with a "mail this person" hyperlink, phone, address) and optional 1-paragraph bio. Some professors keep websites or blogs, but they are not allowed to link to them from the university site; they instead give out the URLs to students as a part of their class syllabi.
Oh, don't get me started on website policy and materials. It's an enormous can of worms. Frankly, your faculty don't have a leg to stand on regarding publishing their name associated with the department in which they work and official contact information. The university should extract the standard information from the publications and push that out to either individual pages or (better yet!) a faculty page for each department & program with a page listing faculty name, credentials and research interests.

If you want to allow them to create more detailed pages or link to offsite pages, make sure to insert the standard boilerplate disclaimer that X College takes no responsibility for the content of external websites. You can also program in a Javascript pop-up that serves such a message when such a link is clicked on in your website.

Sell this to the faculty as the online equivalent of the course catalogue. Don't put up their photographs unless they ALL really want that. Many people find having their photographs on the internet to be intensely unsettling so it's not worth opening up that can of worms unless your institution already does that in the print version.

Regarding the rest? Good luck. You'll need a staff person assigned to monitor the website regularly both for cross-platform usability and regarding the suitability of updates. You will have to decide who has signing authority on updates -- department chairs? Deans? Individual faculty members?
We have standard formats for faculty profiles (very little info -- photo or generic image, name, title, dept, contact, degrees, and a space for research area). Not sure if linking out is regulated, but we do it -- sometimes to lab site, sometimes to personal sites. And all faculty can put their own home pages on the servers, no regulation there. Only "official" university pages are regulated, and some colleges have their own servers.
My university not only allows professor webpages, but student ones. There's a list of rules about what is and is not appropriate, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds it years after creating the webpage.

And I'm absolutely with you about how they sell the college. Honestly, I prefer the "personal" websites to the department-created ones; they almost always have much more information about the professor's work.
Oy. After a brief career in IT at an R-1 university, all I have to say is, establish a standard form and if any prof wants more, they have to change it on their own time. Several years ago I was given the job of building a new department website. Twenty-two professors all looking over my shoulder see what their colleagues had done. One prof made change her entire format four times as she saw what her friends in the dept or at other colleges were doing with theirs. Meaningless stuff, fundamentally: Full CV, to most recent publications and back again; change the picture; shorten the biography, then lengthened again; a friend who had a similar job said it was an endless game of monkey-see, monkey-do. I'm sure it's still going on.
Maybe it's because I've always been in computer science departments, but no one here ever worries about any web-related issues. There are links to personal pages everywhere. Active faculty always have their own personal webpages, which are linked from official webpages. (Sometimes their students have to create the pages for them).
At research universities, in my experience, faculty are usually given some default page, but are then allowed to do whatever they what with it. In particular, there are almost always links to outside pages and and often personal stuff (pictures of their kids or grandkids, typically, or links to web pages of their friends). Presumably there are limits to what you can post, but I doubt anyone except one guy in the administration knows what they are. The personal stuff is hardly surprising as academics tend to equate work and life, and also the older folks remember when the internet was essentially academia only --- I'm not sure most of us even think of the general public looking at our pages.

One thing that creates some space between the university and a faculty member's personal page is typically the faculty pages look very different (often very dated or amateurish) compared to the official pages. Also it's common to have a standard official page with name, office, degrees, area of research, with a link labeled "personal page" which goes to the thing that faculty members can edit directly.
Dean Dad,

At the CC I work at, we're fairly relaxed about this, and for what I think are good reasons. (Disclosure: I was the webmaster who helped set this up).

We've been working with a very distributed model of web authoring for about 6 years now. Departments, generally speaking, have responsibility for their own web sites. We have a template that we suggest be used, though it's not required. We don't link faculty web sites from the college directory, but if their department wants to link from their pages, so be it.

We have a short set of web standards, that covers things like use of the logo, 508 compliance, and so forth. Those were agreed on by a college wide committee that included faculty.

Look to your existing college policies, and see if they don't cover your concerns. It sounds like you are in a litigious area, so your campus probably has an Appropriate Use Policy. That will likely cover many of your concerns, especially use of state resources. FERPA picks off a few more, like posting of student info. The contract probably has a few others, regarding academic freedom/freedom of inquiry, and the limits to that.

Once you've been through those, you may only have to add a line to your web standards that says "These policies don't go away because you're on the web," and your discussion about web content gets 10 pages shorter.

So how did we come to this? A few themes: This is a place where we can represent the diversity of our faculty, not in terms of weird pictures, but in terms of interests. It's a place where our students can find a non-class connection to their instructors, an important piece of student retention. We don't censor the faculty in the classroom, nor on the phone, nor in what they email, nor... If someone can't see that this is a college site (logo, .edu address, academic stuff on the site), then they are really stinkin' dense.

It seems to be going well. About the only person who's taken any guff was a science teacher who (surprise!) taught evolution. The flat-earth crowd got wind of that... he did well.

We occasionally have an internal dust up about some content, which is handled by referring to the above policies.

The biggest challenge we've had is getting people to keep things up to date. Once the novelty wears off, it's hard to keep people interested. I think if I were doing it again, I'd probably want a line in the standards about linking to official college information for schedule, course description, etc.

At Tiny Liberal Arts College, every student, faculty, department, and division had webspace, and most staff, as well. Students and professors were issued a certain amount of webspace to do with as they wished (as long as it didn't endanger the college in some way; that is, nothing posted, hosted, or linked to that was illegal enough to attract attention). Departments and divisions had pages made for them, which professors could add to in some way. Divisions had standardized ones (all in the same format as other top-level pages), while departments had internally uniform websites of varying levels of depth that didn't have to look like the rest of the college website.

There were basic things people didn't have a say over (listing of faculty names and courses in the general division website; listing of senior names and thesis titles on same, etc.), but by and large, you got to do what you wanted. I'm sure there were rules, somewhere, but as far as I was aware they went something like this:

a) Don't do anything that will get you or the college in legal trouble.
b) Don't do anything that will break anything or give any computer on the network a virus.
c) When in doubt, ask someone.

Sensitive information (student elections, homework assignments, college-licensed software, faculty research not ready for publication) was kept on closed servers and an intranet, which required ID to log into, but could be accessed (with proper ID and login information) off-campus via a secure proxy. Incidentally, this was also how off-campus students used JSTOR and other college subscriptions services.

I can see how this would be troublesome to implement, but as someone posted, it does seem unnecessarily complicated. Top levels (the "main" site) get to be uniform, information that's already public (names, courses, titles, etc.) gets to be posted, and the rest can either be kept internal (faculty/students can create pages with whatever they want, as long as they're accessible only on the schools intranet), or disclaimed.
You have clearly thought this through a great deal. I would take advantage of the general lack of techno-savvy in most faculty and make an inelastic template, get professional head shots and let people beg for exceptions if they want them. If they object to the photo, you don't have to include it - but a good picture might be an easier sell. Disclaimers are a very good idea.
The use of the tilde is supposed to indicated "not officially approved" content that is still allowed on an official server.

You point out some important issues - the least of which is what type of credit does the faculty member who takes care of the page receive. Many programs (ie Contribute and Dreamweaver) have made this MUCH easier than in the past but the primary problem is usually too many cooks in the stew. Having just retired as the department webmaster after serving since the initial web deployment in the mid-90s, I would suggest anyone use as much database-driven content as possible and limit updates/changes which can take up enormous amounts of time.

Also be sure to be clear on accessibility standards - some of the "officials" at our university decided to intersperse accessibility with standardization and they are not the same thing. The main "requirement" was that every department have a picture of their building - just what excites students the most.

Also, faculty and administrative staff were most resistent when the paradigm changed to student usability and away from faculty brag sheets (even while not wanting to maintain their own pages).

Also, there are reasons that single female faculty might prefer not to have their pictures online . . .

So, tread carefully . . . .
It's interesting to hear about this issue. As someone preparing for the job market, I can tell you that the majority of grad students in my dept (sociology) have a web page which lists, at a minimum, some info on their dissertation, their research interests, their CV, and contact info or a way to contact them (I have a contact form because I don't want my email out there). Maintaining a web presence is seen as a marketing tool, not a crucial one, but someone one needs. In this way, not only potential employers, but undergrads and grads at other schools can see what your up to and contact you re the research that you're doing.
Okay, dumb question:

So a professor links to something from the department web page that the college doesn't agree with, and you're concerned that it implies college endorsement.

An analogous situation, to me, is a professor publishing a book in a University press. Do we assume that any opinions expressed therein are endorsed by the University? Well, no -- we assume that professors have a great deal of academic freedom; that's the point of being a professor. I don't see any reason to think that anyone would view a link off a professor's page as anything other than a professor's endorsement of a particular site -- and a qualified endorsement at that.

I don't think that's something to be concerned about.

That said, the template idea is a good one. Get everyone's basics on the web and let them link to their personal page if they want one.
I don't know where to begin, so these comments are in random order:

1) Which century are you living in?

2) Our CC has individual faculty web pages. Our division Dean wants 100% representation so staff created "basic" pages for anyone who did not have one. Everything else is "free", including design, with a modest space limit that can be easily increased. [I currently am using 17.2 Mb of a 20 Mb quota, and some faculty have more to make room for pdf scans of notes, etc.]

3) Photos: Our college is still arguing about a faculty photo roster. [Our mug shots are in a data base just like the one used to generate student photo rosters.] One faculty member has an amusing reason for opposition: she has a gender neutral name and teaches a course on gender issues, so the very issue of the gender of the instructor is, itself, a gender issue that she addresses on day 1. A photo with the schedule of courses would defeat that.

4) Some places have a generic, institution consistent, "splash" page for each faculty member (index.htm), which then has an optional link to your personal splash page. Helps define the institution / individual divide. Also the place where disclaimers about external web links would appear. Look at how CNN does it.

5) Content is your problem. Literally. You get those big Dean bucks for figuring out how to keep the citizens happy with what your faculty say in class and on the web. As long as they are clear about being evaluated based on what they say or do in the classroom and what they teach or write on the web, you have the basis for managing it.

5a) Video phones in the classroom could turn a "Kramer" moment into the same public relations problem as a link on the web. Maybe worse.

6) I don't know of any cases where someone has been disciplined for crossing the line on the web, but there must be cases ... just as there are cases for sexual harassment in the classroom, etc.
I forgot to mention

7) ALT text on all images of any significance anywhere on the site that a blind student might need to access, including but not limited to images that serve as "button" links.
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