Bora has posted an interesting draft policy on social media from an unidentified "Big Research Institution" (BRI).

It's already stimulating some good discussion (follow the link for more links) - no surprise, since the policy guidelines contain juicy quotes like these:

All BRI social media output is the intellectual property of BRI.

Whether you are setting up new BRI social media pages within the BRI website or on an existing social media site such as Flickr or Facebook, they need to follow the BRI interactive project process.

In the first instance please discuss with your manager. If they are in agreement then the next step is to complete and submit a concept brief for social media (link here) which outlines...

Staff who already have a blog, wiki, forum etc. which is related to their work or BRI should discuss it with their manager and the BRI production editor. This will allow for a shared understanding of activity in this area and will help BRI promote and aggregate a body of BRI blogs in the future.

A few thoughts: I have no idea whether this BRI is a university, but if it is, this kind of policy is just one more part of a disturbing trend towards the imposition of corporate culture on the university. No, I'm being the ranting anti-corporate academic here; I'm emphasizing the obvious: a university, a community of students, teacher, and scholars, has a very different mission from a corporation. This means that many of the controls typically exerted a company over its employees (perfectly appropriate for that company) are a very bad idea for a university.

Many companies exert tight control over their brand by carefully limiting what types of things employees can say in their capacity as employees; this kind of thing is exactly the opposite of what you want from a community of scholars. The reputation of a university rests in large part on the independent, individually-motivated actions of its scholars and researchers, contrary to what the professional PR folks hired by most universities think. To get tenure at a major university, you generally have to prove that you have a significant international reputation in your field. You get that reputation on your own, not by being controlled by some manager.

Sure, there are some limits, extreme cases where the university has the right to protect its reputation from damaging statements, but in an academic community, the proper limits aren't anywhere close to the kinds of limits one would expect a company to impose.

I've seen corporate-culture creep firsthand: when I went to my postdoc orientation, we had a corporate-jargon-drenched session on university PR, during which I was encouraged to think about who my customers were. The PR person with the marketing degree who led the session obviously thought this was a great idea. (The PR person also seemed to think that the latest marketing campaign was key to enhancing the university's reputation.) Most people who engage in academic research find this advice completely useless.

There is one more issue to consider in the trend to corporatize the university: academics generally accept a lot of financial opportunity costs in order to work in the unique environment of the university. They are willing to endure long periods of training and lower pay, in exchange for a space to work as an autonomous scholar, surrounded by an open intellectual community of students and colleagues. If university environments become less like academic communities and more like corporations, they are going to have to pay their scholars (on whom the reputation of the university really rests) a hell of a lot more - especially ones who could earn significantly higher salaries in the corporate world.

Here's how it works in my case: after college, I spent 6 years in grad school getting a PhD. With my PhD in hand, I now get paid just enough to sustain my family from paycheck to paycheck, I get no retirement benefits, and the 'employer contribution' to my health insurance premiums is really paid to me as taxable income, not as a pre-tax employee benefit. In fact, my entire salary is paid by the NIH and not the university, through a fellowship I obtained by submitting a competitive research proposal. Technically, I'm not even an employee, but an independent scholar working in university facilities. Had I gone to work somewhere else after graduating, I would be doing much better financially.

But I think I'm actually getting a good deal for the few years I'm a postdoc: in exchange for the opportunity costs, I'm given great freedom to pursue my scientific goals, and critical support to pursue those goals: I'm surrounded by great colleagues, I get advice and guidance (and research funding) from my postdoc advisor (I don't have a 'manager'), the department I work for runs great seminars and has excellent support staff who actually make the place run on a day-to-day basis, and the university provides and maintains buildings in which research gets done, and much more.

The key part of the academic deal is the freedom to pursue my scientific goals, which include communicating science to the public by blogging, speaking, or writing articles for other venues. This BRI social media policy is proposing a level of control that is a major encroachment on the academic deal. Universities can't have it both ways: they can't be a reputable academic community while trying to run it like a corporation.