Student working on a laptop at a table in a cafe

Online safety

Wednesday, June 16, 2021 - 9:49am
Alexandra Gillespie

To the UTM community,

Since she started her position as UTM’s Special Advisor on Anti-Racism and Equity, Professor Rhonda McEwen has often repeated a short phrase to express the commitment necessary for an inclusive community: we need to have people’s backs, in word and deed. The language of embodied support—I have your back—befits UTM’s promotion of diversity, justice and safety in all our physical spaces on campus. But the same principle should apply in digital spaces too.

From faculty to staff, librarians to students, many people at UTM conduct vital research in digital spaces online, including efforts to deconstruct entrenched systems of power. This work holds tremendous liberatory value, both for the academic community and for the public we serve: UTM should recognize and celebrate it.

But we also have to protect its practitioners. The new media landscape exposes our researchers to racist trolls and anonymous belligerents, who threaten people advocating for change with harassment and hate. Data shows that harassment online falls disproportionately on members of already marginalized groups who, in speaking out against injustice, become special targets of hostility. This hostility only confirms the urgency of our researchers’ activism and the validity of their work against discrimination, racism and colonialism, including that embedded in academic disciplines.

So, in solidarity with our researchers harassed online, I wanted to articulate a public commitment: we will have your backs in digital space. UTM will build new resources and communities for online research support—and will make them easy to access as a matter of course.

Our new initiatives will complement the support and expertise already available to people experiencing harassment online: from the Office of Community Safety and High Risk; the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office; the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office; the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Office; and through the work of the Black and Indigenous Research Networks. Under existing procurement and eligible expense policies, researchers can use internal grant funds for training and support as they and their staff manage online harassment.

Our new projects also acknowledge a capacity to do more. UTM has formed a task force for online safety, which will share tangible results before the summer’s end. We will include training in online security as part of the on-boarding process for new faculty, librarians, employees, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students. Over time, we aim to offer the same training program to any UTM researchers who want help.

These investments represent the start of an enhanced commitment to our colleagues’ autonomy and safety. Online scholarship has become essential to our mission—so has creating the protections for it.