How to support faculty and staff who experience online harassment
This guidance is based on advice contained in PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual.
As an institution, acknowledge that online harassment is a real problem that can have real consequences on lives and livelihoods. Take it seriously and encourage your staff and faculty to do the same.
If you see or hear about faculty or staff being targeted by abuse online, reach out to get a better understanding of what is happening and how they are doing—no need to wait for them to come to you. Not everyone will feel comfortable discussing their experience, so be discreet in your outreach.
DOCUMENT AND IDENTIFY
Before taking action, encourage the targeted faculty or staff to document the abuse and, if they are comfortable, share it with the university. Collect information to identify the kind of online abuse taking place. See our guidance on “Definitions”.
Based on the available information, work with the targeted individual to assess the threat to themselves, the university, and others, like the target’s family). Encourage the targeted individual to assess their sense of physical safety – the “Assessing the Threat” section of PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual offers a good place to start. Depending on the nature of the online abuse and the individual’s sense of personal safety, consultations with campus police, legal and security experts, and others may be necessary. See our guidance on “Assessing the Threat”.
Get all targets of the abuse involved in any decisions you make on their behalf, especially those that involve contacting law enforcement or drawing public attention to the abuse.
Check in frequently with the faculty or staff member, collect any further relevant documentation, and keep notes of new developments. Work with other appropriate offices and personnel in coordinating the institutional response, which may vary depending on the type of harassment. At public institutions, be cognizant that emails could be subject to future open-records requests.
Harassment can be detrimental to psychological and physical health. Be sure to offer support to the targeted faculty or staff and to others who are affected. Listen and acknowledge their feelings. Share information about counselling and other resources for coping with online harassment. Offer to connect them with others at the university who have experienced harassment and expressed a willingness to serve as allies.
Speak out against the harassment and in support of the faculty or staff member’s right to free expression and academic freedom, while being mindful of the targeted individual’s desire for discretion or publicity. If the faculty or staff member’s own speech has diverged from the school’s core values, you can distance your institution from that speech while forcefully defending their right to express it.
Treat each case as an opportunity to create or improve official polices. Consider conducting an anonymous survey to assess the scope of the problem and the needs of faculty and staff.
Online harassment has been on the rise in recent years. Educate faculty and staff on how to prepare for and respond to online abuse and serve as allies.