UMW administrators have a serious communication problem.
On Friday, April 8, the university sent students an email entitled “responsible use of social media.” It details what online harassment looks like, and how to report it to the university or to the police. Yet there was never any mention of why they sent this message. The only hint to anything is in the lines, “As we come to the end of our Spring semester, let’s strive to make it one of the best. That means using social media responsibly and treating each other with respect.” Are UMW administrators just reminding grown adults about the Golden Rule? Or did something prompt this message?
It may seem harmless for the school to not disclose the circumstances that led to this email. Yet, by failing to discuss them, they left the situation open to rumors. Suppressing information doesn’t make students less curious. It only starves a natural appetite that so many have to know more. When we don’t know the facts, that leaves an information vacuum. Then, it anyone’s best guess on what happened.
These rumors are not harmless. They feed a sense of paranoia and distrust. They let people confirm their own biases instead of trying to understand the reality. In the worst of cases, students can be unfairly targeted as a result of things that they had no involvement in. This is not the dynamic of a healthy college campus. One cannot help but recall the spring of 2015. That semester, online harassment prompted vague emails from administrators reminding students to be civil. Even so, they never disclosed what prompted the reminders. Rumors filled the gaps, and by the time the university released more of the facts, they didn’t matter. Most people had already made up their minds about their version of “reality” and of who was to blame for what.
Our university must be more forthcoming in presenting facts as they know them to the student body. This is not a call for them to rush to judgement, or to release personal information. To do either would be irresponsible. Yet the university’s most recent email doesn’t even meet the bare minimum in presenting the facts: they neglected to either confirm or deny that any report of harassment led to the email. The administration can and must do better. Honesty and transparency can stop rumors only before they start.