Facebook, Fear, and Freedom of Expression at UW-Milwaukee

Last Thursday, December 10, I blogged about how, on the previous afternoon, 20-25 UW-Milwaukee students had been locked out from Chapman Hall, the university’s administration building, where they had marched from a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) rally to deliver a list of budgetary demands to UWM Chancellor Mark Mone. Ironically or not, on Friday December 11, the Board of Regents passed a resolution “to reaffirm its commitment and support for the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression.”

As is often the case with such resolutions, however, this one was passed mainly to specify the situations in which free speech could be suppressed, as this paragraph makes clear:

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not mean that members of the university community may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. Consistent with longstanding practice informed by law, institutions within the System may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university. In addition, the institutions may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt ordinary activities. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with each institution’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

According to the UW Board of Regents, university administrations retain the right to “restrict expression” that is “directly incompatible with the functioning of the university” or that may “disrupt ordinary activities.” In the University of Wisconsin System, business as usual trumps free expression. By the logic of this resolution, locking the doors of the building that houses the offices of the Chancellor and Provost was an exemplary administrative action by UWM.

On December 17, at the final Faculty Senate meeting of the semester, UWM-AAUP President and faculty senator Rachel Buff called out Chancellor Mone about this cowardly (my word) behavior, emphasizing that he had shut out the very students he should be supporting–those who cared enough about the future of the university to want to present their views directly to its chancellor. Not unsurprisingly Buff’s challenge prompted a flurry of defensive maneuvers by members of the upper administration: Chancellor Mone was in Madison at a meeting; Vice-Chancellor Laliberte had met with the students before the rally; Provost Britz was in a budget meeting in the building; and so on.

But the claim on which their lockdown seemed to depend was their fear that as many as 500 students were planning to enter the administration building. Both Chancellor Mone and Vice-Chancellor Van Harpen relayed this intelligence to the Senate in defense of their actions. Amazingly they based this data on the fact that they had noticed that more than 500 people had been invited on the SDS Facebook event page. They were merely being prudent by locking down the administration building against 500 angry students.

Sadly, the UWM administration does not have a clue about how social media works. At the end of 2015 there is not a single Twitter account to be found among Chancellor Mone, Provost Britz, or Vice Chancellors Van Harpen, Laliberte, or Luljak (although the UWM communications czar is the only one of the five to have a Facebook page). Perhaps if there were more social media savvy among the UWM administration, someone might have known what anybody who has posted an event on Facebook knows–that inviting 500 people to an event does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that 500 people will come! Indeed there were no more than 50 or so at last week’s SDS rally, and less than half of that number walked over to Chapman Hall.

Just as last June an ironic tweet about “armed insurgence” earned me a visit from two UWM police, so inviting 500 people to an event on Facebook prompted UWM Chancellor Mone and his cabinet to lock down Chapman Hall. As harmful as the actions of this administration continue to be to the students, faculty, and staff of UWM, actions like this seem as incompetent as they do malicious. In light of this kind of behavior it is difficult not to wonder if Chancellor Mone is in over his head.

Prior to his appointment as Chancellor, Mark Mone’s highest administrative position had been as Associate Dean for Executive Education & Business Engagement at UWM’s Lubar School for Business. With such limited academic administrative experience–never having served as department chair, dean, or provost–it is easy to understand why he shows so little willingness or facility to collaborate with faculty, staff, and students in the face of our current economic crisis. His insecurity and inexperience are also evident in his refusal fully to inform faculty and staff about the details of UWM’s budgetary situation, or in his fear of empowering an elected faculty committee to try to devise a vision or plan for how to go forward in the face of the university’s purported structural deficit.

In an administration-centered university like UWM, students are customers, staff are interchangeable, and faculty make up a faction that needs to be managed and controlled. It is therefore no wonder that a Facebook event inviting 500 people to a rally is a terrifying and incomprehensible enough prospect to lock down Chapman Hall. But perhaps we should look on the bright side. After all, in light of the recent Regents resolution, it would be hard to imagine a clearer expression of the UWM administration’s reaffirmation of its support for “the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression” than locking the doors of Chapman Hall to prevent two dozen students from expressing themselves.





About rgrusin

I am an Academic Entrepreneur and Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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