UI debuting protocols for handling 'trolling' attacks on faculty in fall

UI debuting protocols for handling 'trolling' attacks on faculty in fall

The University of Illinois' reaction to a "trolling" attack and threats directed at Professor Rochelle Gutierrez last year "wasn't as coordinated as it could've been," Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Bill Bernhard said.

Gutierrez, a mathematics curriculum and instruction professor in the College of Education, said she was attacked and threatened by right-wing groups last October because of a passage she wrote for a professional training book for educators. The passage discussed the political implications of teaching mathematics and its bias toward white contributions.

She felt the university did not handle the situation well initially, saying she "needed my department and my college not to act like it wasn't happening."

However, a task force of faculty, staff and members of the university's administration has been meeting since the incidents involving Gutierrez to provide faculty with a road map about how best to respond to these sorts of incidents.

The university will debut its new protocols — after some finishing touches in the summer — during new faculty training in the fall and at annual faculty training sessions. They're designed to be small, short and readable materials addressing specific situations faculty members may encounter.

As part of the university's response in October, Gutierrez was asked to take part in drafting a university press release expressing support for her and her work. The new protocols solidify that strategy as one of the first steps in dealing with attacks on faculty.

"During these situations, it's important for the department head, the dean and the provost to get out and express support for the faculty member, for academic freedom and the exchange of ideas," Bernhard said. "We want to make sure that these leaders know it's their responsibility to do so and provide them with ideas on how to go about addressing these situations."

Alongside broad support for the faculty members, the university will provide them with two sets of information: how to deal with an attack now, and how to deal with the aftermath.

"We've set up checklists basically for the faculty member under attack to understand their options in terms of immediately getting in touch with broader resources," Bernhard said. "'How do I want to deal with students' reactions? With emails? How do I approach inquiries?' We have set up pros and cons and lists of possible actions so they can make decisions for themselves while also having the ability to get help."

The materials faculty and staff will be provided will also include a reminder of the potential mental health and career repercussions that these sorts of attacks may cause.

One of Gutierrez's specific quibbles with the university's response was that there was not a specific person she could've gone to for help. As the attacks were happening, she said she gave email access to her husband so that she did not have to read some of the often hateful, threatening messages she was receiving.

Bernhard said faculty members have identified some options in that regard:

— Contact UI police, he said, though he acknowledged some faculty may not be comfortable letting them have free access to their email.

— Set up an email filter with the help of the university's IT department to prevent the inbox from getting certain emails.

— Ask a trusted colleague or member of the administration to read the emails for them.

These protocols serve to help faculty deal with outward attacks. As for internal attacks perpetrated by students or members of the university, Bernhard said there are "a different set of procedures where it's obviously easier for us to engage the individuals that did the attacks."

Steve Witmer, director of the Illinois News Bureau, said the university also provides training for faculty on how to talk to news media. Professors at an AAUP meeting last week noted the necessity of a faculty member having media literacy, whether it's to promote their work or defend themselves.

Though the majority of the training is "ad hoc," Witmer said, the main goal is to help the faculty member understand "what sort of experiences they can expect to have with the media" through organizational sessions and mock interviews.

"A lot of times, it's a career enhancement kind of thing more than anything else," he said.

All over the country, Bernhard said, universities are coming up with ways to defend their faculty against trolling attacks.

The university's task force, he added, took a look at some of the resources peer universities had and found that many were too dense and hard to get through.

"We wanted to make ours short and to the point so that people know quickly how to engage," he said. "I hope we never have to be in this position again, but now we can know we're prepared to handle this."