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Social media left to the discretion of students and faculty

Cain Madden/The Daily Mississippian


Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of American idealism, but as technology evolves that freedom is becoming more difficult to regulate. Its latest obstacle: social media.  

Social media policies are being created across the nation for elementary/secondary education, but Dean of Students Sparky Reardon said it is different for higher education institutions such as the University of Mississippi.

“I think it’s very tough for the college level,” he said. “If a student were standing on a street corner in Jackson, holding up a sign saying ‘I love __,’ then what control would we have over that?”

For Ole Miss, there is no policy on social media, but Reardon said the IT Appropriate Use Policy would be a good source to guide Internet use.

The Appropriate Use Policy “sets forth the privileges of and restrictions on students, faculty, staff and other users with respect to the computing and telecommunications systems located at the University of Mississippi.”

If a problem between professors and students cropped up, Reardon said it would most likely be handled by the Equal Opportunity and Regulatory Compliance (EORC) Title 9 office.

The University Creed is a good guide for determining what should and what should not be posted on social media, Reardon said.

Sophomore Chinese and Latin double major Alex Rhea had a run-in with a university official earlier this semester. Daniel O’Sullivan, associate professor of modern languages and senior fellow of the Residential College, posted something Rhea believed to be critical of the Catholic Church.

“I was a little put off by a professor of the university – a university where minds are supposed to be cultivated and people are supposed to speak their thoughts,” he said.

Rhea said he often has “heated” conversations with O’Sullivan, who is also Catholic.

“He’ll sometimes have posts very critical about the Church,” Rhea said. “I feel like it is some of my duty to say something or sort of stand up and say something.”

Rhea said even though he and O’Sullivan have differing views, they still get along.

“If I were really that offended by his post, I could easily un-friend him,” he said. “I consider the Internet its own other country. It is its own place where people can take part and say things they want to, to a point.”

O’Sullivan said it’s definitely time to have a conversation about whether the university should have social media guidelines, but is not sure how far those guidelines should go.

“I’m not for anything that would short-circuit the honest exchange of ideas,” he said. “I’m a little uncomfortable about a university regulating these things because it’s not a university entity. This is not a thread on the Blackboard site. This is what I consider to be two people, private citizens, on a public network having an exchange of ideas.”

O’Sullivan said that while some people “like” his provocative postings on Facebook, he is going to hold off on the inflammatory posts for now.

“I’ve decided that prudence is the better part of valor,” he said. “I’m going to take my political views off of Facebook.”

Reardon said Facebook is not as big of a problem today as it once was.

“Facebook postings today have improved over a thousand percent over some of the earlier ones,” he said. “We had issues when Facebook first came out; there were some inappropriate groups — it was a group that talked about a professor that they thought was attractive.”

Debora Wenger, journalism professor and co-author of “Advancing the Story: Broadcast Journalism in a Multimedia World,” a textbook that covers social media strategies and how to use them as journalistic tools, said social media policies are there to guard students and faculty members from inappropriate relationships.

“In terms of the instructor/student relationship, my view is that social media is a tool,” she said.

Wenger also said that faculty members should set their own bars for what they will and won’t include in their social media relationships with their students, and vice versa.

“I think that students need to think about how much personal information they feel comfortable sharing with their instructors,” she said. “Frankly, my guess is that there are students who forget that they’ve befriended a faculty member.”

Education professor Joel Amidon said he does not think professors should befriend or follow current students on Facebook or Twitter.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said. “I typically have the policy not to friend any students until after they’re not students anymore.”

Amidon said faculty members need to be very cautious with their social media interactions with students.

“When opening the door to students on social media, you have to have the hat of ‘I’m their instructor,’” he said.

Amidon also said students should take caution with their postings, describing social media as a resume.

“It just takes one person to see something you put out there,” he said. “With social media, you’re broadcasting yourself; you’re putting yourself out there.”

Associate provost Noel Wilkin said there is no specific social media policy at Ole Miss on interactions between professors and students.

“In my mind, social media is a form of communication,” he said. “We don’t have a policy that says what a faculty member can do over the telephone with a student. We also don’t have a policy that says what faculty can say to students on Facebook, email and Twitter. We expect our community to be civil.”

Josh Parsons, an exercise science junior from Southaven, said he is not friends with any of his professors on his Facebook account. He said he believes a social media policy should be enforced in college.

“I feel like social interaction, by means of Facebook and Twitter, can cause some conflict,” he said. “It may cross a student/professor boundary. It can kind of change the dynamics of that, whereas professors should be looked more toward as mentors and not really as friends, so we shouldn’t be able to mingle that much.”

Danny Davis, a managerial finance junior from Gautier said befriending professors is a rewarding experience, and he said he finds the social media policy trend unnecessary.

“I think it’s a bunch of crap,” he said. “One of my best memories here at Ole Miss is having a friend as a professor.”