Thursday, December 19, 2013

Just how bad is the Kansas Board of Regents' new policy on professors and social media?

Posted By on Thu, Dec 19, 2013 at 5:32 PM

The Kansas Board of Regents drops the ball, big-time.
  • The Kansas Board of Regents drops the ball, big-time.
Back in September, after the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, David Guth, a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, came a little unglued and fired off a tweet. "The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you," Guth wrote.

Conservatives pounced on Guth, demanding that he resign. He ended up taking a paid administrative leave, and after about a month, the controversy had pretty much blown over. But Guth's tweet inadvertently raised some interesting questions about what professors are allowed to say outside the classroom and, specifically, on social-media platforms. We wrote a little about it here.

On Wednesday, the Kansas Board of Regents sent out a release informing the public that it had approved a new policy that "aims to respect and protect the rights of individuals to speak freely while also addressing employees' responsibility to the university." Among other things, it allows the university to fire both tenured and untenured employees for "improper use" of social media, and for anything deemed to be "contrary to the best interests of the University." Those are not the only bits of language that you could drive a truck through; by and large, the new policy - which the board made without open debate and without consulting the faculty - is so vague and subjective that it gives the university free reign to get rid of just about any professor who says something unpopular.

Bill Black is a professor of law and economics at UMKC. This morning, he wrote a pretty airtight dissection of, and response to, KU's new social-media policy. We dialed up Black to see what else he had to say on the matter.

What was your initial reaction to reading this new policy?

It really is exceptionally radical. It actually took me awhile to figure out how radical it is. They [the Board of Regents] don't even make a pretense of valuing academic freedom. It's clear to me that they don't want discordant ideas. You'll notice that they keep using the phrase "CEO" throughout it. There's all these business buzzwords in it. Eventually it dawned on me that they see the university as a business and that it should be run like a business, where the CEO is the boss, and uniformity and loyalty are key. They don't, in fact, value any of the things that made American universities the best in the world.

Can you give an example of how you think this new policy inhibits academic freedom or muffles professors?

Sure. I'm a criminologist. I write about white-collar crime and elite financial frauds. All the banks I write about are potential donors to KU. If I expose one of those banks, is that "contrary to the best interests of the University"? Or, for example, KU does some of the best research in the world on agriculture. What if a professor found out some genetically modified seed is toxic, and the company that makes it is a major donor? Under these new rules, the university would have license to fire him. Essentially everything in the new language allows them to fire. It's all standardless standards - so vague, so broad, so subjective.

The other thing about it is the truth is no defense. If you're a professor and you make an absolutely correct statement that happens to be controversial - or even not controversial, but one that's, for whatever reason, contrary to what the CEO believes is best for the university - you could be fired. And that is really dangerous because a lot of the really important things professors find in research are bound to upset at least some people or companies or groups.

What do you think the upshot of all this will be?

The state of Kansas has, basically, two big things going for it. It's got great soil with a good amount of grain, and it has the university system. The University of Kansas is the crown jewel of the entire state. A policy like this really undermines the university. Because if you're a professor and you have two job offers, one from KU and one from the University of Texas, why go to Kansas, where they don't value academic freedom?


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