October 3, 2014
By Audrey Williams June
With the academic-hiring season under way, some search-committee members will turn to the Internet to conduct a little due diligence on potential future colleagues. In short, they’re going to Google them.
Official job applications—the carefully crafted curriculum vitae, idealistic teaching statements, glowing letters of reference—are meant to represent candidates in the best, most professional light. An online search, meanwhile, might ferret out a piece of interesting information that didn’t make the application packet or give a glimpse of how candidates portray themselves out in the (virtual) world.
For the most part, faculty members find it perfectly natural to check out that public persona, thinking that “anything that is publicly available on the Internet is fair game,” says Robert D. Sprague, an associate professor of business law at the University of Wyoming.
In this day and age, job candidates and evaluators alike might expect such searching. A recent survey revealed that 48 percent of employers use Google or other search engines to learn more about applicants at some point before they’re hired—or not. In higher education, that practice can both pose legal risks and raise concerns about academic freedom.
A recent incident signaled how much impact a professor’s online presence can have on future employment. In August the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign revoked a job offer it had made to Steven Salaita because of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. The move triggered a passionate debate over academic freedom.
It also served as a crucial reminder that, whether or not applicants are aware of it, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, personal blogs, even comments on email lists are all part of the mix of information that can surface in the hiring process.
For most committees, Google searches or peeks at social-media conversations aren’t likely to turn up anything that would throw a candidate into the international spotlight like Mr. Salaita. At the same time, a post or personal site could let a search committee discern someone’s race, ethnicity, or religion; whether she has a disability; or her marital status—all things that can’t legally be asked outright of a candidate.
What’s discovered online, though, could knock a person off the short list. “Somebody on a committee might say, You know, maybe this is somebody we better not talk to,” says Mr. Sprague, whose researchinvolves employment-related privacy and privacy in the age of evolving technology.