Universities are becoming increasingly vulnerable to publicity scandals caused by the increasing number of students turning to Twitter to broadcast their thoughts.
According to a study released in May by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 18 percent of all 18- to 24-year olds who are on the Internet also use Twitter. In fact, there is a higher percentage of college-aged Americans on Twitter than all but one other age group. And these tweeters have recently made news for reflecting poorly on their colleges. From UNC-Chapel Hill to Florida State University, several universities have been forced to face serious consequences for their student’s tweets.
“When these kinds of situations come up we’ve got to be able to say, ‘no, it’s not us’,” said Paul Cousins, director of the office of student conduct at North Carolina State University.
Cousins said it is hard for universities to separate themselves from the actions of an individual student because the public often perceives the student as a representative of the institution.
North Carolina State University faced a controversy in May when varsity basketball player C.J. Leslie tweeted that he’d rather not have a gay player in the locker room. Though the tweet made news, Leslie did not face disciplinary action from his school, as Cousins said the tweet was not threatening and did not violate the student code of conduct.
“It might be in poor taste,” Cousins said. “But that doesn’t make it a violation of the code.”
A similar situation occurred in June at the University of Texas at El Paso, when varsity basketball player John Bohannon tweeted that it wasn’t cool to be gay and later issued an apology. The university did not respond to calls for comment.
At the University of Kentucky, current Green Bay Packers wide receiver and former University of Kentucky football player, Randall Cobb, tweeted that he was disappointed with fans after winning a game in 2010. But DeWayne Peevy, senior associate athletic director for communications at the university, said Cobb did not say anything inappropriate.
Peevy also spoke of University of Kentucky basketball player Josh Harrellson, who tweeted a complaint about his coach in 2010 and was later suspended from Twitter. Peevy said the situation made Harrellson a better player.
“Social media is a big issue and I think the power of social media is something these kids haven’t had a chance to yield before college,” he said.
The University of Kentucky’s athletic department has a social media policy student athletes have to sign every year. It states that they are held accountable for their actions online and must befriend someone from the compliance office who can monitor their activity, he said. But Peevy said the policy was a teaching tool rather than a system of punishment and that there had been no issues with it to date.
Though often times these issues are handled internally, some tweets have required public relations efforts from the university.
Last Wednesday, Florida State University officials sent an apology letter to the University of Oklahoma in regards to “offensive” tweets sent by a Florida State student to a University of Oklahoma football player. The tweets wished harm on the player and his family. In the letter Vice President of Student Affairs Mary Coburn, Student Body President Aviram Assidon and Athletics Director Randy Spetman said the messages were deplorable and that the student did not represent the university.
“As soon as we received notice about these very inappropriate messages, we contacted the student and his account and messages were deleted and appropriate action was taken,” read the letter.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, former varsity football player Marvin Austin’s tweet about a party he attended initiated an investigation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Steve Kirschner, associate athletic director for communications at UNC-CH, said the university had already been working on the existing social media policy before the controversy. The policy, which must be followed by all student athletes, was formally adopted in Aug. 2010. It requires students to befriend someone in the athletic department and refrain from defamatory language, among others.
Yet it isn’t just students that are using Twitter. A 2010 study by UniversititesAndColleges.org found that all of the top 100 schools from the US News and World Report’s 2010 College Rankings had an official Twitter account. In fact, many schools had additional accounts devoted to academic departments, student services, or school athletics. The average number of accounts per school was 8.4.
According to the study, in 2010 George Washington University was the most active tweeter, with nearly 50 tweets a day. The University of Florida had the most accounts with 24. While Harvard University, which as of Sunday morning, had the most followers with 67,821.
Yet just because colleges have professionals on staff doesn’t mean they are immune to mishaps.
The University of Iowa recently issued an apology to Michele Bachmann after one of its accounts tweeted that the Republican presidential candidate hopeful was a “cougar.” The university did not respond to calls for comment.
As for students, many schools do not have a specific policy in place for non-athletes.
“We’re not engaged in censorship of student’s access to social media,” Cousins said of North Carolina State University’s lack of policy. Cousins said students were held accountable for actions that could constitute harassment, threats or illegal activity.
Florida State University and the University of Kentucky do not have a specific policy for non-athletic students either, officials said.
And without university guidelines, it’s up to college students to decide how to use Twitter.
Adam Britten, author of the electronic book “Twitter 101: An Introductory Guide for College Students,” said Twitter is incredibly public and that users should realize tweets are permanent and can be shared in other forms.
“While Twitter can be incredibly valuable, it can also be very destructive,” he said.
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