Kansas Board of Regents, Freedom of Speech, and Bad Faith

Kansas Board of RegentsWhen the Kansas Board of Regents announced its new social media policy on December 18, I thought it must have made a mistake. After all, this Board of Regents had seemed an ally of higher education in Kansas. Unlike previous Boards, this one had — for instance — been asking the Kansas Legislature to fund the state universities in Kansas. Adopting a social media policy that suspended freedom of speech and (in effect) eradicated tenure was surely because the hastily passed proposal was ill-considered. So, I thought: if we let the Board of Regents know how damaging the policy is, then they’ll realize that they’ve made a mistake, withdraw the policy, and start over.

I was wrong.

As emails and subsequent statements to the media have revealed, the Board of Regents crafted the most repressive policy that (it thought) would withstand a legal challenge. Working with State Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the Board created the policy using specific language from United States Supreme Court cases. Then, at its December meeting and over the objections of university faculty and administration present, the Board unanimously passed the new policy.

The policy is not a mistake, but a carefully executed plan to muzzle free speech. This is why the Board passed the policy as faculty and staff were grading exams and preparing to leave town (indeed, many had already left town). This is why, though the policy has been panned with near unanimity from both within and beyond Kansas, the Board is not backing down.

As further evidence, one need look no further than board members’ statements about the plan. Their words are perfect examples of the “political language” that, as George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (1946), “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”  In response to the recent letter signed by 81 distinguished professors from KU and KSU, Fred Logan, Chair of the Board of Regents, wrote, “I very respectfully disagree with your apparent assessment that faculty and staff at Kansas universities ‘no longer have freedom of speech, academic freedom . . . , nor tenure.’  I assure you that all three of those items are alive, robust and well.”  His assertion that freedom of speech, academic freedom and tenure “are alive, robust and well” collides with a policy that says faculty and staff can be fired for saying anything “contrary to the best interest of the university” or anything that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers” — a definition so broad and vague as to encompass any speech. Mr. Logan’s statement and the social media policy cannot both be true. Given that he is using his “freedom of speech is alive, robust and well” statement to defend a policy that rescinds freedom of speech, his words are a superb example of language designed to — in Orwell’s words — “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Another word for this sort of speech is doublespeak.  Yet another word is lie.

Here’s another example. Mr. Logan recently asserted, “The board unanimously approved this policy and did so in good faith,” despite the fact that it approved the policy over the objections of faculty and administration present at the very meeting. As KSU Faculty Senate President Julia Keen (who was present at the meeting) noted on 21 December,

The creation of this policy was done with no input from university faculty or administrators; it was put near the end of an 84-page agenda without notification or announcement.  The Council of Faculty Senate Presidents made a statement at the KBOR meeting on Wednesday, December 18, voicing our concerns about both the content and the timing of the policy change.  We asked that the vote be delayed to a future KBOR meeting to allow for faculty input.  The KBOR chose to proceed with a unanimous vote to pass the policy language.

And yet Mr. Logan says that the Board approved the policy “in good faith.”  Either his definition of “good faith” is so rare as to have eluded the dictionary-makers, or he is again lying.  Based on the available evidence, he appears to be delivering another lie. It’s a very polite lie, but it’s a lie nonetheless.

By failing to act in good faith and dressing its policy in doublespeak, the Kansas Board of Regents no longer deserves the confidence of those it serves. Since the Board itself is not an elected body, I doubt that a vote of no confidence would be persuasive. If the Board is so convinced that its draconian policy is correct that it’s willing to lie about it, then why would it care about a vote of no confidence?

George Orwell, 1984

I hope I’m wrong. I hope the Board of Regents resumes doing its job, which (according to its mission statement) is to “advocate powerfully” for “continuous improvement in the quality and effectiveness of the public postsecondary educational system in Kansas.” Based on its responses thus far, I think it more likely that its next statement to the state universities will be more along the lines of “freedom is slavery.”  Or, given how much freedom of speech seems to frighten the Regents, perhaps it will be “ignorance is strength.”

6 Comments »

  1. Jamie Said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 11:47 am

    A friend of mine put me onto the story of what’s happening in Kansas, and I wanted to leave my voice in support of you.

    I faced a not-dissimilar challenge in the last academic year, as a student rather than as faculty, at another mid-western university. It was my last year before graduation, and the school had repeatedly ignored my requests for action regarding a course that had essentially been “pure wind.” After a lack of action, I stood up before the Dean of our school at an open forum, and raised my concern. The Dean shuttered my opinion as fast as she could, and closed down the forum almost immediately after I tried to question her political speak about how the university was operating in everyone’s best interests. The Dean then approached me, and told me that I needed to meet with her, privately. When I declined to make a meeting immediately, the Dean emailed me personally, demanding I do so. After speaking to a number of long-time, well-respected professors, I was essentially told to beg forgiveness, because the Dean was not worth fighting with, at the risk that the Dean would expel me or withhold my degree.

    I felt such rage and hatred in backing down, but as a student, I had no real choice. The students and the faculty were all afraid of the Dean and the web of political power that had been spun. The only allies that I had were ones who preferred not to stand next to me when I had to speak. When someone in charge wields so much power and fear, it’s hard to stand by and watch things degrade, but even harder to keep fighting when you could risk losing everything you’ve worked for.

    Good luck to you. I hope you find the resolution that you seek.

  2. Craig Svonkin Said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

    Good luck, Phil, in organizing to push back against this horrifying attack on freedom of speech and tenure rights. I think these sorts of attacks on everything that a public university should be come out of the corporatization of our universities. Too many of the people on our Boards of Regents have no place being there. Good luck in your fight!

  3. Vincentius Patricius Said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

    This situation is just unbelievable. With such abusive policies in place, the school might just as well rename itself to Kansastan University. All my sympathies to people who may have to face tough choices.

    I think it’s important to understand that modern day tyranies hide their intentions behind seemingly tolerable policies. I say seemingly tolerable because the majority of the text is not unreasonable (though, likely, mostly unnecessary). But then a small catch-all clause gives the powers that be imense power. And as Aesop said, any excuse will serve a tyrant.

    E.g., the Chinese constitution seems to guarantee freedom of speech, but at the same time forbids anything against the state’s interest. Yeap, say anything you want, as long as it’s not against our interests. And we won’t even tell you what that is.

  4. Dale Said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

    So sad to see this turn of events, but I’m not all that surprised that they’re not interested in discussion. Passing it when they did was a clear signal that debate was not invited.

  5. Michael Caddell Said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 3:10 am

    I will be reading this most recent post, complete with full attribution, on my call in internet radio station, Radio Free Kansas. You and any others are welcome to appear. Here is my blogspot: http://fightincockflyer.blogspot.com/

  6. Barry Roberts Greer Said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

    Be sure to stop by campusreports dot com. The Kansas policy does not surprise us. Also recommend reading “Notes from the Academic Underground.”

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