Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Soltan: Universities need "a substantial public online voice"

Margaret Soltan of University Diaries, posts on "The Online Amplification Effect" at the Association of American Colleges and Universities website, arguing that it is in the interest of colleges and universities to engage, not ignore, blogging and the web. She writes, in part:

All of this information-turmoil will yield inaccuracies, to be sure. Things can happen fast, and not everyone understands what's going on. But what the turmoil's mainly doing is making democratic editorial decisions. The turmoil represents a collective consciousness outside the established media, a force that can, if it wishes, move a story up and up in importance, until the amount of online attention and discourse the story attracts becomes the story.
Universities are accustomed to operating with a great deal of secrecy--in tenure decisions most notably, but also in other institutional circumstances. The blatancy of the Web clashes mightily with the reticent ethos of campuses. Thus the disdain many professors express for Rate My Professors and other online student evaluation sources, and their continued indifference or hostility even to high-profile academic blogs of the sort maintained by legal scholar Richard Posner and Nobelist Gary Becker....
Many university administrators and faculty are hardwired to loathe the loose-jointed, populist, ramifying Web, and that is their prerogative. They are free to see its ways as a threat to serious scholarship, professorial autonomy, and so forth. But as the Web displaces physical newspapers and similar media to become the primary point of news access for more and more Americans, universities, with their often antiquated public relations offices and defensive instincts, are making themselves vulnerable to reputational damage.
This is particularly true when big, violent campus stories break, as they recently did at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (student riots) and Duquesne (a homicidal fight involving students and nonstudents). Student bloggers on the scene of these events are often the first to report them, so that when people Googled the names of the school involved, they were are as likely to be linked to these citizen journalists as to larger media outlets....
Universities should have lots of on-campus bloggers--students, faculty, administrators-- actively chronicling the life of the school, so that outsiders already know something of the reality of life there, and so that many voices at the university--official and unofficial--can have an immediate and accessible say in the presentation of its way of being to the world. What's needed is an understanding of the new ways in which events will be transcribed and aired; what's needed is the adoption of a substantial public online voice that can enter the fray with power and clarity.
Soltan's full essay is here. Hat tip: Cliopatria.

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