Updated November 2023
University faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students, and staff increasingly have to navigate challenges that arise when scholarly or creative work receives public attention or criticism. This guide is provided as part of CU Boulder’s commitment to Academic Freedom and to Freedom of Expression, along with its concomitant commitment to the health, safety, and well-being of everyone in the CU Boulder campus community. Specifically, it is designed to advise those who publish and engage in public scholarship and art, i.e., faculty and instructors, graduate students, and undergraduate students.
Ultimately, this guide aims to support and provide assistance and resources to aid in responding to individuals and organizations who aggressively contact or target scholars for the content of their public scholarship, research area, or artistic endeavors. These aggressive tactics are not normally employed through the scholarly process but often occur through social media, personal communications, and other media. It is important to note that such aggressive tactics may be used disproportionately on scholars who are underrepresented in the academy, such as scholars of color, women scholars, and/or LGBTQ+ scholars. There are also examples of faculty being the targets of such tactics based purely upon their political beliefs.
Other efforts that draw attention to faculty also occur in mainstream media outlets or in partisan media (see the section of this website titled “Scholarship in the modern digital media environment”), both of which may, at times, quote or criticize faculty, staff, graduate students, or undergraduate students for their research, essays or editorials, programs, or teaching. If that criticism becomes a call for censorship or discipline, or in the case of partisan media, a call or campaign for dismissal, the university—as a baseline commitment to the tenets of academic freedom—will support and protect the right of its faculty members, staff, and students to study, teach, publish, and perform.
For resources related to policies and procedures that cover harassment committed by CU Boulder employees or students, please see CU Boulder’s Don’t Ignore It page.
Scholarship in the Modern Digital Media Environment
As scholars at one of the nation’s leading public research universities, CU Boulder faculty, staff, and graduate students publish in some of the most prominent journals and scholarly venues in the world. A good deal of this scholarship quickly finds its way into a variety of media spaces—from discipline-based publications, to publications that focus on academic scholarship and innovation, to mainstream national news publications, daily newspapers, local and national TV and radio broadcasts, podcasts, blogs, and social media.
Some publications in the digital news space cover news through an overtly ideological or political viewpoint—they could be rightly called partisan media. These publications view themselves as alternatives to mainstream media, which they may feel are slanted in their own ways. Such publications are issue-driven and often conflict-driven, and their readers are apt to be highly partisan and action oriented.
Added to all this is social media, which analysis shows is a regular source of news for some 18% of Americans, according to data gathered in 2019–20 by the Pew Research Center.
Responding to Communication from Individuals & Groups Outside the University
Faculty members and graduate students can choose whether to respond to personal contacts of any kind regarding their scholarship and academic work. They are not obligated to do so and should consider whether responding is a productive use of the faculty member or graduate student’s time and attention.
If a response is appropriate, as a public university, CU Boulder encourages faculty and students to engage with the public in a positive, productive context, particularly when advancing their scholarship, research and creative work, and describing its positive impact on humanity. Engaging negatively is often the result that the other party is attempting to provoke.
CU Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano and Provost Russell L. Moore have both made respect a recurrent theme in their interactions with and communications to CU Boulder faculty. Likewise, the expectation of faculty respect among colleagues at the university and with the public appears in the Academic Affairs Professional Rights and Responsibilities (PRR) of Faculty Members and Professional Rights and Responsibilities of Academic Leaders document under Part II, Section C (“Citizenship”), the preamble of which requires that a faculty member “demonstrates collegiality; respects and defends the free inquiry of associates; [and] shows due respect for the opinions of others in the exchange of criticism and ideas.”
This means that if faculty members or graduate students choose to respond to criticism, a challenge, or an attack, they are expected to do so with respect, using facts, evidence, reason, and data in the tradition of scholarly debate and exchange.
Responding to a Critical Opinion Piece in the Media
Research, scholarship, and creative work with public policy implications often are debated in public spheres such as local and national newspapers and magazines. At times, faculty and staff may be asked or choose to publish in these outlets to respond to scrutiny or criticism of their work. If a faculty member or a graduate student wishes to submit an opinion piece to a local or national publication in refutation of claims made against them or their research in that publication or in another media outlet, they are advised to access campus support mechanisms and work in partnership with a media professional on the CU Boulder media relations team, a subset of CU Boulder’s Strategic Relations and Communications.
With extensive experience in working with global media, a media relations professional in Strategic Relations and Communications can assist with crafting, editing, and placing an op-ed piece, provide other helpful strategies in navigating digital and social media environments, and can assist in dealing with critical or aggressive audiences.
In addition to working with a media relations professional in Strategic Relations and Communications, faculty, graduate students, and staff in the CU Boulder community are advised to contact their department chair, advisor, dean, and unit-based communicator when they intend to submit an op-ed in response to public or media criticism.
The same notifications are recommended when one is pro-actively writing about their research in a popular venue. These notifications will allow the university to better support and provide resources to the faculty, graduate students, and staff, rather than to prevent these types of engagements. It is especially important for faculty and graduate students to reach out to the Strategic Relations and Communications media experts when they believe their research has been mischaracterized and a correction is warranted.
Responding to Critical Emails, Letters, or Social Media Posts
It is important to distinguish between a communication that is critical of someone’s scholarship and a communication that constitutes a threat or an attack or is part of targeted harassment. Threatening and harassing communications are often unsigned, signed with obviously fake or misleading names, or provide an email address but no specific identity.
Members of the CU Boulder community have the choice to respond to or ignore a critical email and other forms of communications from outside the university. It is inadvisable, however, to respond to angry, highly partisan responses that engage in ad hominem or personal attacks.
Responding to email communication may result in your response being broadcast on social media or other venues. Even if you respond thinking you are entering into a private conversation, someone can take your response and use it in ways you may not want.
Knowing that these criticisms can be upsetting and disruptive, the university wants to provide support and assistance to faculty, staff and others facing such attacks. If you need advice on responding to a critical but non-threatening email, letter, or social media post, consult a communicator from your college or school or the media relations team in Strategic Communications and Relations for advice on crafting an effective response.
Issuing Statements on University Websites, Guidelines for Academic Units
Protecting Private Information
Interacting with unknown parties also raises the potential for a person’s private information to be disclosed and disseminated, otherwise known as doxxing. There are ways to minimize the possibility of doxxing, including using a virtual private network, minimizing the disclosure of information on social media and limiting social media contacts to private groups, reviewing past social media posts and removing those that contain personal information, and asking vendors such as Google to remove personal information that has been inappropriately revealed to others. Please remember to use virus protection and malware detection programs and to change passwords regularly.
Responding to Threats or Aggressive Contact
Any language in a communication that contains actual or implied threats of harm should be reported immediately to the CU Police Department and to a department chair, dean, the Provost’s Office and the Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT). This applies to all forms of communication, including emails, social media posts, telephone calls or messages, or in person encounters. This applies irrespective of whether the person making the actual or implied threat is affiliated with or is external to CU. If anyone feels the threat, harassment or stalking behavior is based in any way on protected class status, it should also be reported to the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance.
Faculty, staff and students should under no circumstances respond to anything that resembles a threat, as this can escalate a situation.
Likewise, any mention of a faculty member’s or student’s personal information (outside of what is included in the university’s directory or considered public information), such as office location, home address, or home phone number on an individual’s or organization’s website should also be reported immediately to the above authorities.
Managing Targeted Campaigns & Online Harassment
Receiving a cache of emails, phone calls, social media, or text messages with similar or identical language within a specific time frame is evidence of a targeted campaign against the faculty member or graduate student. It is always advisable to report targeted campaigns to a department chair and for chairs to report these to the dean and to the Provost’s Office.
The goal of this type of online harassment is to intimidate researchers, scholars and artists— to tie up their time with responding to attacks and to direct negative attention toward those scholars and artists, their departments/institutes and academic homes, and their universities at large.
The process of monitoring and responding to online harassment is best achieved via a collaboration among individual departments, colleges/schools, the Office of the Provost, CU Boulder’s Office of Strategic Relations and Communications, CU Police Department (CUPD), and other campus entities such as the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC) and the Office of University Counsel. Options that can be deployed in managing online harassment on social media are below, adapted from an excellent guide by the University of Iowa:
- Responding. As mentioned above, if a person or organization is conducting a misinformation campaign on the author or the research, a brief, fact-based response may be appropriate. Remember that this will likely prompt additional activity by harassing people or organizations, but it demonstrates the researcher/author or artist has sought to officially correct the record. Again, always use the same tone of professional, scholarly positioning—resist the urge to engage in verbal combat.
- Using an auto email response. When faculty, graduate students, and others in the CU Boulder community are receiving a concentrated amount of harassing emails, they might consider using an auto response to let harassers know that they are not engaging and to let non-harassers know that there may be a delay in sending an email response. The auto email response may also indicate that any threatening or harassing emails will be reported to the appropriate authorities.
- Reporting/Recording. If faculty members or graduate students feel at all threatened, notify the parties identified in the preceding section. They should not delete any messages that they and their department receive. They should document the harassment, and save voice messages, emails, screenshots on social platforms or websites to provide to investigating authorities.
- Ignoring. People who mount campaigns against faculty and graduate students often hope to provoke a negative response, distract them, or otherwise disrupt them from their teaching, research, or artistic pursuits. Don’t give them that opportunity.
- Muting and blocking. When managing or responding from a university-affiliated account (such as a college, department, unit, etc.), muting and blocking are rarely advised because they do not prevent the negative comments and campaigns from continuing or deter those involved from finding other ways to engage with you. By muting or blocking, you lose the opportunity to keep a trail of comments and an ongoing awareness of harassment campaigns and attacks. Please reach out to Strategic Relations and Communications before deciding to mute or block.
Experiencing harassment or attacks as a result of one’s research or art can be challenging and traumatizing. CU Boulder stands with its faculty, staff, and students to protect academic freedom and support safety and well-being.
Support Resources for Faculty, Staff & Students
Helpful Links & Articles for Scholars on Responding to Attacks