As scholars at one of the nation’s leading public research universities, U researchers publish in top journals and scholarly venues. Much of this research finds its way into other platforms very quickly and can go viral on social media and other online outlets. Sometimes this can be positive and at other times frustrating—depending on how the research is portrayed. Sometimes scholars may feel like their research is under attack, misconstrued, or used to push an outside agenda.
Responding to critics is entirely at the discretion of individual scholars; there is no obligation to do so. Sometimes it’s advisable to respond, and other times it’s best not to do so. There is no exact science here, whether to respond is a subjective and personal decision. Here are a few points to consider:
- In deciding whether to respond or engage with critics, think about what it is you want to achieve and if this course of action is going to bring that about.
- If you believe your research has been mischaracterized and you aren’t sure the best way to ask for corrections or clarifications, consider reaching out to media professionals within your department or at University Marketing & Communications for guidance.
- The university expects and urges scholars to keep interactions respectful and on topic, using facts, evidence, reason, and data. It is generally a best practice to NOT respond to angry, highly partisan, ad hominem, or personal attacks.
- Remember there is no such thing as a private conversation. Your exchanges (text, email, social media, etc.) may result in your words being broadcast on social media or other online outlets in ways you aren’t expecting
- It’s important to distinguish between feedback that is critical of scholarship and communication that constitutes a threat, attack or targeted harassment. Threatening and harassing messages are often unsigned, signed with obviously fake or misleading names, or provide an email address but no specific identity. (See below for more on harassment.)
The university acknowledges that any type of criticism may be upsetting and disruptive and offers support and assistance for those facing such attacks. Communications experts within colleges and departments and at University Marketing & Communications are available to offer support and advice on crafting appropriate responses to non-threatening emails, letters, tweets, social posts, etc. (Additional campus resources are noted below).
There may be situations in which scholars are asked to respond to scrutiny or criticism of their research in a public forum, or they may choose to do so proactively. This is often prompted by research, scholarship, and creative work that have public policy implications or address issues that may be debated in public media outlets.
Scholars who want to publish an op-ed in a local or national publication are advised to follow these steps:
- Consider notifying your chair, advisor or dean as that you intend to publish an op-ed. Because in all likelihood, they might end up fielding questions as well. It is a much appreciated professional courtesy to give them a heads up.
- Consider asking assistance with crafting, editing, and placing an op-ed piece from communications specialists within your college or department or at University Marketing & Communications (UMC). These experts may also provide other helpful strategies for responding to critical or aggressive audiences.
- Even if you are receiving assistance from communications specialists within your college or department, please consider alerting UMC when an op-ed is coming out so their staffcan be prepared to respond to media requests.
Most media requests are channeled through University Marketing & Communications or department and college communication specialists, but there may be times when reporters reach out directly to scholars. In either case, media specialists are available to provide several levels of media training for a variety of outlets including TV, radio, newspaper, magazine, social media, live feeds, press conferences, and more.
A sampling of how University Marketing & Communications can help with media interviews:
- Vet the publication or outlet before the interview
- Help gather background, questions, context
- Inform the reporter about your area of expertise
- Accompany you during the interview
- Assist with follow up to reporters
U employees are required to comply with the Utah governor’s executive order and the Board of Regents policy that prohibit university employees, while acting in their official capacities, from engaging in “legislative communications” (i.e., communications with a state legislator regarding the passage or defeat of a specific bill, resolution, amendment or other matter pending before the Utah Legislature). The university president may authorize employees to engage in legislative communications for the limited purpose of explaining technical concepts or providing subject-matter expertise.
This policy does not prohibit university employees from speaking on matters of public concern as private citizens on their own time and with their own resources (e.g., personal email instead of UMail; personal letterhead instead of university letterhead; etc.).
- “Legislative communications” does not include testifying before a legislative body, such as a legislative committee or a legislative task force, or answering legislators’ questions. Therefore, if a legislator asks you to attend a legislative committee meeting to share your expertise on a particular bill, you may do so. However, when you share your expertise, it is important that you do not speak, or otherwise act, on behalf of the university, unless administrators have given you permission to do so.
- You should first notify the U’s Office of Government Relations when policymakers request information from you or ask you to testify. Their staff can offer guidance on whether the university has an official position on a bill; how to provide information as a neutral expert without inadvertently suggesting that the university is taking an official position on a bill; etc.
- When engaging policymakers as a private citizen, remember the following:
- Do so on your own time.
- Use your own resources (e.g., personal email instead of UMail; personal letterhead instead of university letterhead; etc.).
- Always make an appropriate disclaimer (e.g., “I am John Smith; I am a Ph.D. trained researcher at the University of Utah in the Department of OBGYN, but I am speaking on my personal behalf and not on behalf of the university.”).
- If there is an issue that you believe the university should take a position on, or if you want to speak or act on behalf of the university, you are required to obtain the approval of university administrators, including your department chair, dean, and the cognizant Senior Vice President Vice President for Government Relations Jason Perry will then consult with the president and the executive leadership team to make a decision and advise you of their decision.
Scholars should avoid exploiting the university's name, brand, or their own relationship with the university for personal reasons unrelated to their legitimate academic or professional activities. They should not intentionally create the impression, in public appearances or statements, that they are representing the university unless, in fact, they are. This policy has several practical implications:
- All U employees have the right to free speech on matters of public concern and are free to lobby or support candidates, issues, and campaigns.
- The university remains neutral on all election-related questions and issues.
- Employees who engage in political activities must do so outside of work hours (or while on approved leave), and they must use their own resources. This means that employees should not use university email accounts, university letterhead, university office supplies, and equipment, or other university resources to engage in these activities.
- In addition, employees are expected to make it clear that they are speaking on their own behalf and not on behalf of the university.