Friday, August 07, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Social Media and Academic Careers

A new correspondent writes:

With the exponential growth in use of social networking, in what ways do sites such as facebook have an impact on one's professional personna? While fb might be useful for increasing one's social network, is it harmless to one's career? As an experienced administrator, what are your thoughts about fb for the over 40 year-old professional?

For several years now, I've heard variations on “don't use facebook or twitter or myspace or blogger or any social media, lest future employers find you toxic.”

The odd thing is, I haven't seen any of that in any of the searches in which I've participated. I've spent most of this decade in administration, and have literally never seen social media emerge as an issue. (I also haven't seen it emerge for anyone in mid-career.)

I've seen some weird issues. Past criminal convictions, mysterious references, perplexing interview behavior, palpable attitudes of superiority, and even cover letters that apparently rule out the section of the country where my college is located. But I've never seen any form of social media held against a candidate.

Part of that may be generational. It's still unusual for most committees to have many members under forty, so it may be that it just doesn't occur to some people to look. But even when there are cyberliterate youngsters on committees, the subject has never come up.

(I suspect that my own personal case could prove an exception someday. I can imagine some irate faculty getting a hold of some of my musings on tenure and trying to blacklist me in the name of protecting what they consider academic freedom. I hope I'm wrong on that.)

Whether that's due to indifference, to principled respect for free speech, or to a new emerging etiquette around social media, I honestly don't know. (It may also be regional and/or specific to the public sector; I could easily imagine self-consciously culturally conservative institutions in other parts of the country taking a much more restrictive view of such things.) I haven't seen a really good test case thus far, which is kind of surprising at this point.

A few years ago, when the academic blogosphere still had the aura of scary newness about it, I recall a few kerfuffles around the career dangers posed by blogging. On the ground, though, I've seen none of that.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen somebody's social media presence torpedo their candidacy? Have you seen someone cashiered for what they've written? Or is 'doocing' just sooo 2005?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Well, twitter didn't cost John Quincy Adams the Presidency ...

Seriously, though, I think you captured it all with your reference to "scary newness". Academia seems to run around with its collective head cut off when something new comes along, particularly technology. Even when colleges adopt 'new' technology it seems to be done out of fear and ignorance.
I'll be honest, during one search -- AFTER the interview, I did look at the professor rating site. The site confirmed that the candidate was a horrific bore and a huge snob -- with a huge number of low ratings spanning years. I decided not to support that candidate, although I didn't say it was due to the student feedback on the site.

Otherwise, finding their website, facebook page or blog wouldn't be a problem -- unless it revealed something more troubling than the usual dysfunction of most faculty members.
This happened 3 1/2 years ago, but I remember reading about it at the time and being a little surprised. A proprietary, mentioned in the post linked below, apparently fired a faculty member for comments she made on her blog. She has a number of additional posts discussing it over the next few weeks, as well. As always, YMMV.
I think whether or not social media is damaging would depend on what you posted on your site - anything that's out there publicly should be for public consumption. I think this is just one more "can you handle yourself" sort of test, like the dinner and the schmoozing drinking parts of faculty searches.
Yeah, I think the key issue is not being a dumbass on social media. You don't put on the internet anything you wouldn't want to read in the newspaper. Rants about the evilness of your employer are still best left to personal bitch sessions with friends unless it's well in the past (like your high school retail job).
It's probably more the age group of the people you interview and some changes within facebook.

There's now a public and private profiles to facebook. So you can post pictures of underage drinking to your friends, and pictures of you volunteering to work in the orphanage with the public.

You may be hard pressed to find hiring decisions influenced by social media as a result. Plus, Google must be taken with a grain of salt -- the first hit for my name is a dead guy memorial site.
My wife's office recently decided not to tender a fulltime offer to an intern when her Myspace/Facebook (I forget which) page revealed too many drunken undergrad pics. Granted the person was borderline and the social site was just the final straw. But, without it they probably would have made the fulltime offer.
FWIW, I doubt my department would use "Rate Your Professor" in a job hunt. My department chair has awful ratings. (I've seen their class, I think the poor ratings are undeserved.)
During a very informal interview for an adjunct position I had one of the professors mention she "googled" my name. Thankfully at that time very little was available and it was beneficial to the subject I teach. I routinely check up on my name via search engines. One thing I found interesting was that letters to newspaper editors that get published wind up online and via the parent company. My letters appeared in print in NY, but wound up online on the Chicago Tribune. I do worry about someone's reaction, but I think it is not unusual for educators to have opinions.
Checking a candidate out on the internet can be dangerous too. When I google my own name, one of the top hits leads to a list of political donations by a relative with the exact same--donations that would leave my colleagues unimpressed, to say the least.
Any career dangers on this Community College-related blog?
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