Kansas professors gather as social media decision nears
It's wait-and-see mode for faculty and staff members of state public universities, but about 50 of them gathered Sunday on the Kansas University campus for a forum on the soon-to-be determined social media policy by the Kansas Board of Regents.
The forum, in about three hours of dialogue, featured several lectures from university professors — most of them distinguished — on academic freedom, free speech rights and social media. Nearly a dozen others offered their input in discussion sessions open to the entire room. Most, if not all, of those who spoke criticized the policy announced by the Board of Regents in December.
The Joint Council of Kansas Distinguished Professors sponsored Sunday's event.
The regents' social media policy was made in response to an anti-NRA tweet in September 2013 by KU journalism professor David Guth, which had caused a national uproar.
Charles Epp, a KU professor of public affairs and administration, who is also co-chair of the social media work group created by the regents to recommend changes to the policy, briefed the room on his impressions of what shape he believes the regents' policy will ultimately take.
"It is a policy that will include admonitions to respect academic freedom and the First Amendment," he said. "At the same time, it includes what appears to be legally enforceable language that withdraws some protections from work-related speech."
The policy, as it currently stands, gives university CEOs the power to suspend or fire employees for social media posts that conflict with the best interests of the school or its ability to perform services. The work group created by the regents suggested removing the disciplinary language and replacing it with advisory language.
In their initial response to the work group's recommendations, the regents showed no interest in removing the disciplinary aspects. They are expected to formally adopt a policy in early May.
Epps said Sunday that the regents did seem open to inserting language into the policy that affirms speech and academic freedom. However, Epps said, the regents prefer to retain a balance test in the policy that would be used to decide whether a social media post was harmful to a university.
Epps said the test, known as the Pickering Balance Test, is too confusing for non-lawyers and would cause university faculty and employees to shy away from public statements.
"I think it's deeply problematic," he said.
Phil Nel, a Kansas State University English professor, offered a sharply worded critique of the board. He called on faculty and staff to conduct a vote of no confidence and ask each regent to resign.
"They are not interested in research," he said. "They simply want to funnel as many paying customers, students, as they can through the credential-granting business, a university."
His call to action saw a mixed response from the audience. Richard de George, a KU professor emeritus of philosophy, cautioned against scapegoating.
"I think it would be a mistake, really, to have any movement to oust or show lack of support because there's a lot of pressure on the board of regents also," he said. "There's the Legislature, which may be part of the problem. I think it's a very complicated issue and I don't think it's simply 'get rid of these people and problem solved.' "
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