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?