Archive for April, 2014

New Words, Same Tune: Kansas Board of Regents’ Revisions Fall Short

Uncensor KansasThe Kansas Board of Regents’ revised social media policy (announced this afternoon) grants academic freedom with one hand, and takes it away with the other. It adds the language of the work group’s model policy, but refuses the work group’s intent. It retains nearly all of the Board’s original language that drew such criticism — grounds for dismissal still include making statements “contrary to the best interests of the university,” or that “impair discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” and so on. But now, the policy begins by affirming principles of academic freedom.

The Board has done what it said it would do: it has taken its original failed policy, and then added language from the work group’s exemplary policy. The problem, of course, is that the language of the original policy remains operative. The Board’s proclamation “Kansas Board of Regents to Consider Substantial Changes to Social Media Policy” is accurate only if the word “substantial” refers to the number of different words in the revised policy: the latest version does adopt most of the work group’s suggested language. However, the proclamation is inaccurate if the word “substantial” refers to the punitive intent of the original policy: making statements as a private citizen can still be cause for dismissal. That has not changed.

This new policy is at odds with itself. It begins by walking towards the light of open, unfettered inquiry, but then turns its back, barricading itself behind its insistence upon censure.

In contradicting itself, the policy also negates itself.

It is a deft piece of sophistry. In seeming to grant the academic freedoms its critics have sought, it initially lulls readers into thinking that the Regents have at last heard and understood. But then, as it approaches the home stretch, it gives us 6.b.3 — which is nearly the same as 6.b. in the original. At that point, previous assurances of “the Kansas Board of Regents’ commitment to the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom” wither before those vague “best interests of the university,” impairing discipline, and all the rest.  The promised oasis of academic freedom turns out to have been a mirage, after all — a lovely, enticing mirage. But a mirage, just the same.

The Kansas Board of Regents is inviting comments on this new policy (once you click on the link, scroll down to the bottom of the page) until this Friday, May 2nd, at 5pm.  So.  Please comment!  It does not seem to be restricted to faculty, staff, or students of Regents universities.  So,… if you’d like to voice your opinion, please do.

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Fighting for Freedom of Speech: The First Amendment Under Attack

Fighting for Freedom of Speech: The First Amendment Under Attack

Good afternoon.  Thanks for coming.  Thanks to Susan Kemper for organizing this, and to KU for hosting.

I’m @philnel on Twitter. The Board of Regents is @ksregents. And the hashtag for this conference is #FreeSpeechKS. If you Tweet, feel free to tag us. In case there are any Regents unable to attend, I will periodically live-Tweet my talk, and post the full text when I finish.

I open with that because everything I am saying now is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It’s protected whether I say it in this room, on a blog, via social media, or directly to Regents Chairman Fred Logan. What we are all doing here today is asserting our rights as U.S. citizens to speak, without fear of censure.

U.S. Constitution, Amendment I

I also open with that because what we are doing here is asserting our rights, as scholars, to academic freedom. As the AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom reminds us,

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good…. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.

This fundamental principle is under attack — and not just in Kansas, but in South Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, Colorado, and many other places. Across the country, opponents of freedom of speech are trying to quash intellectual inquiry, to prevent educators from doing their jobs, and to take away their basic rights as citizens.

Now, of course, that’s not how they put it. They offer different reasons. A state legislator in Michigan has threatened to take $500,000 away from Michigan State University’s budget because the university has a few courses on labor unions. According to him, even to talk about the subject would “encourage labor disputes.” Meanwhile, Tennessee Senator Stacey Campfield didn’t like the University of Tennessee’s student-run Sex Education Week — which included speakers from a range of perspectives, including clergy, and proponents of abstinence education. So, he proposed legislation forbidding the university from using any of its money on any invited speakers. This would shut down even commencement speakers, even anyone who came for free but received travel reimbursement. Senator Campfield’s reasoning? Teaching about sex didn’t promote “diversity of thought.”

Alison Bechdel, Fun HomeAnd, as it so often does, South Carolina has embraced political recklessness with the greatest fervor. This year, its legislature cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston’s budget because — as a voluntary, summer read — the college recommended Alison Bechdel’s award-winning Fun Home, a lyrical, beautiful memoir about her own coming out and her relationship with her closeted gay father. State representative Garry Smith alleged that recommending the book was a form of, and I quote, “academic totalitarianism,” because it “promoted” homosexuality. Also this year, the College’s Board of Trustees ignored the recommendations of the College’s search committee, and instead appointed as the College of Charleston’s new president, Lt. Governor Glenn McConnell, a man so nostalgic for the Confederacy that he likes to dress up as a Confederate general and opposed attempts to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds.

These are only a few examples of recent attacks on academic freedom.

But my point is: We in Kansas are not alone. Others are fighting this fight, too.

The reasons for these attacks differ. In the case of South Carolina, it’s ordinary bigotry —against gay people, and against people of color. In Tennessee, ignorance also motivates the censor. In Michigan, it’s explicitly anti-labor, enforcing a curriculum designed to create compliant workers, rather than engaged, inquisitive citizens.

Ideologically, Michigan’s censors are closest to Kansas’s censors — both see the university not as a place for intellectual inquiry, but as a business that produces future employees. The Kansas Board of Regents views Kansas universities as poorly managed credentialing factories. The Regents are the new management, here to tell us how we should do our jobs, advising us not to step out of line, to just keep producing the diplomas that customers — excuse me, students — are paying for.

Kansas Board of Regents, 2014This is why the Board of Regents always justifies their policy by telling us: It’s legal. We’re lawyers. We’ve checked the Constitutionality of this, and it’s legal.

To that, I have four responses. First, if you actually have to check the constitutionality of your social media policy, then you’re aware that the policy is so extreme … that people are going to tell you “This is unconstitutional.”

Second, while it’s worthwhile to investigate the legality of this policy, why is that the only question they seem to be asking? Why not ask: Is this good for higher education in Kansas?  That, after all, is their job as Regents — to advocate for higher education in Kansas.

Third, they don’t ask these questions because the Kansas Board of Regents see a university as just another corporation. But a university is different from a corporation. People who work for universities exchange ideas because it’s our job to exchange ideas. Debate, dissent, discussion — freedom of inquiry — are at the core of what the academic enterprise is all about.

Fourth — and this is a longer point — historically, new forms of media have always been the targets of censors. And, historically, the censors have always failed. History tells us that if the Board of Regents attempts to uphold any version of their current policy, then they will ultimately fail.

There are many reasons why they will fail, the first of which is that powerful ideas — like freedom of speech — are stronger than the state, more enduring than any who would suppress them. Socrates questioned the wisdom of the Athenian state. It sentenced him to death by drinking a mixture containing hemlock. We do not remember the people who tried to censor (and ultimately killed) Socrates, but we still remember Socrates and his ideas — among them, the Socratic method of asking questions to help us arrive at a deeper understanding. I use this method in my classes every day, and I expect many other teachers here use it as well.

Socrates

In the seventeenth century, when the British Parliament sought to replace one means of censorship with another, John Milton wrote one of the most eloquent defenses of freedom of speech. Replacing the Star Chamber, Parliament’s Licensing Order of 1643 said that any publications deemed offensive to the government could be seized and destroyed, and writers, printers, and publishers of such works could be arrested and jailed. In words that speak directly to our current situation, Milton’s Aeropagitica (1644) criticized this law:

how can a man teach with autority, which is the life of teaching, how can he be a Doctor in his book as he ought to be, or else had better be silent, whenas all he teaches, all he delivers, is but under […] the correction of his patriarchal licencer to blot or alter what precisely accords not with the hidebound humor which he calls his judgement. […] I hate a pupil teacher, I endure not an instructer that comes to me under the wardship of an overseeing fist.

That’s exactly the problem here. We cannot teach “under the wardship of an overseeing fist.” We need to be able to share ideas — such as this quotation, which comes from my colleague, Blake scholar Mark Crosby.

John Barrell, Imagining the King's DeathAs the flames of the French Revolution ravaged Paris a century and a half later, the British government was again worried — this time, worried that challenges to monarchy would jump the English Channel. So, they enacted repressive legislation against the freedom to publish an opinion. This culminated in the famous 1794 treason trials, in which the British government prosecuted people for imagining. To write or to think about the end of monarchy, you have to imagine the death of the king and so, according to the government, be engaged in a treasonable act. The defense successfully argued that the only people imagining the king’s death were the prosecution.

One of the pieces of writing that emerged from this period (and, again, thanks to Mark Crosby for pointing me to it), William Godwin’s Political Justice (1793) offered this vigorous and eloquent defense of freedom of speech that offers guidance to us today:

No government ought … to resist the change of its own institutions; and still less ought it to set up a standard upon the various topics of human speculation, to restrain the excursions of an inventive mind. It is only by giving a free scope to these excursions that science, philosophy and morals have arrived at their present degree of perfection, or are capable of going on to that still greater perfection.

This is what the Regents resist understanding: “the excursions of an inventive mind” — and “giving a free scope to these excursions” — is the purpose of higher education. In restraining these excursions, the Regents attack our core mission.

So. What to do? In Tennessee, people protested, and, in the face of strong opposition, Senator Campfield’s bills died after he failed to bring them up for a vote prior to the deadline. In South Carolina, the College of Charleston’s student government and faculty senate have voted no confidence in their Board of Trustees. Students and faculty have taken to the streets. This past Monday, the cast of the Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home performed scenes from the play at the College.

Here, at their May meeting, the Board of Regents will, I think, present a “revised” policy that adds language affirming academic freedom to a policy that otherwise eviscerates academic freedom. They will present this incoherent policy as a compromise, deliberately ignoring the fact that when you add pieces of an “A” policy (the work group’s revision) to an “F” policy (the Regents’ original) you do not magically transform that “F” into an “A.”  You get, maybe, a “D-.”

A + F = D?

In response, I propose that we: (1) say that we have no confidence in the Kansas Board of Regents’ leadership, (2) demand that they resign, and (3) call for reform in how Regents are selected. Selecting a regent should not be an act of political patronage. People who oversee higher education should actually know something about higher education. I would not presume to tell Regent Logan how to run his law firm – because I have no background in law. And yet Mr. Logan presumes he knows what’s best for higher education. Logan and the Regents’ aggressive indifference to the recommendations of the work group, their condescension towards the faculty, staff, and students that they ostensibly oversee is a clear signal that they have no business serving as Regents.

But we need to do more than this. We need to challenge the pervasive argument that education should follow a business model. Higher education provides a public good. We must, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” That is the purpose of higher of education. And it is the purpose that our current regents reject.

Ignorance is strength.

The Board of Regents don’t seem to care that their repressive policies threaten the ability of Kansas universities to attract the very best faculty. After all, given the current academic job market, Kansas universities will still find people to staff the classes. Sure, they may not be the best — but so what? Diminishing the value of a Kansas university degree does not trouble the Regents because they have no interest in research. They simply want to funnel as many paying customers (“students”) as they can through the credential-granting business (“university”). Because you measure the value of a university by how many degrees it grants, don’t you?

That attitude is dangerous. It threatens not just higher education, but the republic itself. Education is not just about producing diplomas. It is about thinking. It is about challenging assumptions. It is about nurturing an informed citizenry who are willing to challenge the assumptions of those who govern them. It is about making people uncomfortable, in ways that may impair harmony among co-workers, or discipline by superiors — in ways that may not be in the “best interest” of whomever is running a university at any given time. A university is about precisely what the Board of Regents’ social media policy prohibits.

So. It’s time for these Regents to step down. And it’s time for Kansans to fight back.


This is the full text of the talk I gave today, at Academic Freedom and Responsibility in the Age of Social Media, a symposium held the University of Kansas. The conference hashtag: #FreeSpeechKS.

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Freedom of Speech and Higher Education

Uncensor KansasParticipating in today’s “Five On the Hour: Stand for Freedom of Speech,” I’m posting the statements I prepared for my two classes. In practice, I ended up improvising. During my first class (English 725: African American Children’s Literature), I realized that I should have started with the connection to the class and then moved out to the Kansas Board of Regents, and so I began re-structuring things on the fly. During my second class, I was much looser, using the statement only as a broad guideline — I began with the connection to the work we were reading (The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963), and then moved out to the Regents’ repressive social media policy.

So. What you see below is not what I read in each class. They’re what I planned to read.


Engl 725: African American Children’s Literature | Engl 355: Literature for Children


ENGLISH 725: AFRICAN AMERICAN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Five on the Hour: Freedom of Speech and Higher Education

Philip Nel

I’m going to take the next five minutes to say a few words about Freedom of Speech, and why it’s important in higher education in general and in African American Children’s Literature in particular. Back in December, as you were taking exams, faculty were grading exams, and everyone was preparing to leave town, the Kansas Board of Regents imposed a new social media policy, which they passed over the objections of all faculty, students and administration present at their meeting.

The policy says all speech expressed through social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog, any website, email) can be grounds for firing. Employees (faculty, staff, student employees) may not say anything that’s “contrary to the best interest of the university,” nor may they utter something that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.” Those terms are so broad as to encompass any speech. As many have noted, this policy creates a repressive climate for the free exchange of ideas — which is at the heart of what we do at a university.

The university is a community of scholars. We discover new knowledge and create new ideas. These ideas are different than what has come before, and difference can be controversial. Indeed, sometimes our ideas challenge social mores. To test our ideas, we debate them, refine them, change them. This process of creation and discovery — evaluated through open and unfettered dialogue — is the means by which our civilization progresses. And the only environment under which this process can occur is an environment of free speech.

Robin Bernstein, Racial InnocenceThere are of course many examples from African American Children’s Literature. As Robin Bernstein has shown us, until relatively recently the notion that children of color can feel just as acutely as white children can feel was not part of the dominant culture in the U.S. Topsy, the Golliwog, and their many descendants propagated the lie that African American children were thicker-skinned and less human than white children. And thus, the notion that black children would deserve a literature that spoke to their experiences was also not an accepted truth. Once, people accepted these ideas as true. But then other people challenged these ideas. We — well, a majority of Americans, at any rate — now regard the notion that African American children would be any less human than white children to be absurd, racist, nonsense. And, though the publishing industry has much work yet to do, there are now books that address the many experiences of growing up black, Latino/a, Native American, or Asian American in the U.S.

But to recognize the foolishness in established “truths” about childhood and children’s literature, we need the freedom to question those “truths.” We need freedom of speech.

So, even though the Regents announced their policy when people were least likely to notice, it did not slip by unnoticed. From across the state, across the country, and across the world people condemned it. Our own local paper, The Manhattan Mercury, called the policy “an anti-free speech manifesto that sounds like a pronouncement from the government of a banana republic.” Our student government has called for its suspension, as has KU’s, as have student governments across the state. All faculty senates have spoken against it. All university presidents have, too.

In response, the Regents then appointed a workgroup of representatives from all Regents campuses to revise their policy. The workgroup crafted a model policy that offers guidelines for speech, but respects the right to freedom of speech. Were the regents to follow the advice that they solicited, Kansas — for a change — could be in the news for doing something thoughtful, even admirable. Yet, at the Regents’ meeting last week, they signaled that they would retain the original policy, but add some of the workgroup’s language affirming freedom of speech. So, in May, I expect they will announce their new, “compromise” policy, which both threatens freedom of speech and yet alleges to uphold it.

Questions of freedom of speech are frequently a concern of children’s literature: most of the books on the ALA’s annual banned books list are books for children or adolescents. Many of the books we have read this semester raise, quite explicitly, the question of what’s appropriate for children. For most of its history, America has been a white supremacist police state. Implicitly and explicitly, African American children’s literature confronts facts about America that most Americans prefer not to think about.

So, here are some resources where you can learn more about this issue.

The Board of Regents will probably vote on this at their May 14th meeting. The workgroup presented the revised policy at the April 16th meeting.



ENGLISH 355: LITERATURE FOR CHILDREN

Five on the Hour: Freedom of Speech and Higher Education

Philip Nel

I’m going to take the next five minutes to say a few words about Freedom of Speech, and why it’s important in higher education in general and children’s literature in particular. Back in December, as you were taking exams, faculty were grading exams, and everyone was preparing to leave town, the Kansas Board of Regents imposed a new social media policy, which they passed over the objections of all faculty, students and administration present at their meeting.

The policy says all speech expressed through social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog, any website, email) can be grounds for firing. Employees (faculty, staff, student employees) may not say anything that’s “contrary to the best interest of the university,” nor may they utter something that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.” Those terms are so broad as to encompass any speech. As many have noted, this policy creates a repressive climate for the free exchange of ideas — which is at the heart of what we do at a university.

The university is a community of scholars. We discover new knowledge and create new ideas. These ideas are different than what has come before, and difference can be controversial. Indeed, sometimes our ideas challenge social mores. To test our ideas, we debate them, refine them, change them. This process of creation and discovery — evaluated through open and unfettered dialogue — is the means by which our civilization progresses. And the only environment under which this process can occur is an environment of free speech.

Here’s an example. Earlier in the term, I told you that the notion that children deserve their own literature is a relatively recent one. And that, a hundred years ago, experts argued that women should not be allowed to attend college because it would make them infertile (all that blood going to the brain would deprive the womb of blood, you see). Once, people accepted these ideas as true. But then other people challenged these ideas. Now, we recognize that children, cognitively, are different than adults, and indeed that “children” itself is a very broad category: children at nine tend to have more developed cognitive abilities than children at three. Now, we recognize that women can learn without becoming infertile. Indeed, we regard these earlier ideas as laughable. Ridiculous.

But to recognize the foolishness in established “truths,” we need the freedom to question those “truths.” We need freedom of speech.

So, even though the Regents announced their policy when people were least likely to notice, it did not slip by unnoticed. From across the state, across the country, and across the world people condemned it. Our own local paper, The Manhattan Mercury, called the policy “an anti-free speech manifesto that sounds like a pronouncement from the government of a banana republic.” Our student government has called for its suspension, as has KU’s, as have student governments across the state. All faculty senates have spoken against it. All university presidents have, too.

Christopher Paul Curtis, The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963In response, the Regents then appointed a workgroup of representatives from all Regents campuses to revise their policy. The workgroup crafted a model policy that offers guidelines for speech, but respects the right to freedom of speech. Were the regents to follow the advice that they solicited, Kansas — for a change — could be in the news for doing something thoughtful, even admirable. Yet, at the Regents’ meeting last week, they signaled that they would retain the original policy, but add some of the workgroup’s language affirming freedom of speech. So, in May, I expect they will announce their new, “compromise” policy, which both threatens freedom of speech and yet alleges to uphold it.

Questions of freedom of speech are frequently a concern of children’s literature: most of the books on the ALA’s annual banned books list are books for children or adolescents. The book we are reading right now — Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 — raises, quite explicitly, the question of what’s appropriate for children. The Watson children cope with the trauma inflicted by racist white terrorists who kill black children. This is serious stuff. And it’s an award-winning children’s book.

So, here are some resources where you can learn more about this issue.

The Board of Regents will probably vote on this at their May 14th meeting. The workgroup presented the revised policy at the April 16th meeting.

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Kansas Board of Regents Fails Again? UPDATED, 2:30 pm

Kansas Board of RegentsBased on Lawrence Journal-World reporter Scott Rothschild’s tweets (see below), the Kansas Board of Regents are rejecting the social media work group’s thoughtful revisions to the Board of Regents’ failed social media policy.  If I understand Mr. Rothschild correctly, they’re going to tack on some language affirming academic freedom to a policy that eviscerates academic freedom.  In sum, the Kansas Board of Regents appear to be treating the workgroup’s recommendations as a kind of garnish for the Board of Regents’ original turd sandwich.

So, here are 3 things you can do:

  1. If you teach at a Regents university, please join us for Five on the Hour (April 21 and 22), when — at the top of each hour, in our classes — we’ll talk about freedom of speech and how it’s integral to our work.
  2. You might also contact the Kansas Board of Regents, and let them know your views.  Contacting Governor Brownback is also a fine idea.
  3. Come to “Academic Freedom and Responsibility in the Age of Social Media,” at the University of Kanas, 27 April 2014. Free and open to the public.

I have to dash off to teach now, but wanted to get this info. out as soon as I could.

UPDATE #1 (16 April, 11:30am): Full report

UPDATE #2 (16 April, 2:30 pm): Regents now say they will adopt “nearly all” recommendations of social media workgroup.

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Distinguished Professors from KSU, KU, KUMC, WSU: Open Letter to the Kansas Board of Regents

University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, University of Kansas Medical Center

15 April 2014

Dear Kansas Board of Regents,

We write to offer strong support for the joint working group’s revision of the Kansas Board of Regents’ social media policy.  The revised policy is laudable in several ways.

First, it recognizes the unique and fundamental duty of public universities to contribute to the discovery, creation, and testing of new knowledge, as well as the educational necessity to encourage critical thinking and ensure breadth of knowledge for students.  These are primary responsibilities of public universities; they differentiate college classrooms, university lecture halls, and campus libraries from nearly every other sort of work environment.  Any policy regarding the sharing of thoughts and language in an academic environment must support this critical role for university employees.

Second, the process of its development models scholarly inquiry.  The group formed for this task includes individuals (faculty and staff) with multiple areas of expertise and experience.  They analyzed existing policies across the Regents’ campuses, searched nationally for parallel policies, debated the goals and language among themselves, and released their draft for further scrutiny and debate within the academic communities where it will be implemented.  This process exemplifies the very practices of scholarship that are so fundamental to academic work.

Third, it offers true guidance for the proper development of campus-specific policies, relying on the specific procedures already mandated for policy development on the individual Regents campuses, each of which has an individual mission in which academic freedom and discourse must function.  This draft is neither chilling nor punitive; to the contrary, it encourages thoughtful, informed examination of how the new technologies of social media complicate as well as facilitate public discourse.

“The proper role of public intellectuals is to question accepted dogmas, conceive of new methods of analysis, and expand the terms of public debate,” John Cassidy observes in a recent review of a Harvard University Press publication (“Forces of Divergence,” The New Yorker, 31 March 2014: 73).

As University Distinguished Professors at Kansas State University and the University of Kansas Medical Center, and Distinguished Professors at the University of Kansas and Wichita State University, we find this draft meets, supports, and exemplifies the role of scholarship for public intellectuals in a democracy.  We endorse it with enthusiasm.

Sincerely yours,

Christer Aakeroy, Chemistry, KSU
Kenneth B. Armitage, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, KU
Victor Bailey, History, KU
Deborah Ballard-Reisch, Strategic Communication, WSU
William A. Barnett, Economics, KU
Raj Bhala, Law, KU
John Blair, Biology, KSU
Frank Blecha, Veterinary Medicine, KSU
Susan J. Brown, Biology, KSU
Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez, American Ethnic Studies, KSU
Edgar Chambers IV, Human Nutrition, KSU
Gaylen Chandler, Management, WSU
M. M. Chengappa, Diagnostic Medicine & Pathobiology, KSU
C. Lewis Cocke, Physics, KSU
Gary Conrad, Biology, KSU
Ann Cudd, Philosophy, KU
David Darwin, Engineering, KU
Lynn Davidman, Sociology & Jewish Studies, KU
Richard DeGeorge, Philosophy, KU
Rob Denell, Biology, KSU
Elizabeth Dodd, English, KSU
Walter Dodds, Biology, KSU
Michael Dryden, Diagnostic Medicine & Pathobiology, KSU
James H. Edgar, Chemical Engineering, KSU
Charles C. Eldredge, Art History, KU
Paul Enos, Geology, KU
Joseph B. Evans, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, KU
Steven Farmer, Management, WSU
Stephen B. Fawcett, Applied Behavioral Science, KU
Victor S. Frost, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, KU
Prasad Gogineni, Engineering, KU
Robert Goldstein, Geology, KU
David Hartnett, Biology, KSU
Jonathan Holden, English, KSU
Joan S. Hunt, Anatomy & Cell Biology, KUMC
Ryszard Jankowiak, Chemistry, KSU
Anthony Joern, Biology, KSU
Michael Kanost, Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, KSU
Susan Kemper, Psychology, KU
Barbara Alane Kerr, Psychology, KU
Kenneth J. Klabunde, Chemistry, KSU
John Leslie, Plant Pathology, KSU
Robert Linder, History, KSU
David Littrell, Music, KSU
Daniel C. Marcus, Anatomy & Physiology KSU
Richard Marston, Geography, KSU
Charles Russell Middaugh, Pharmaceutical Chemistry, KU
Subbaratnam Muthukrishnan, Biochemsistry & Molecular Biophysics, KSU
T. G. Nagaraja, Diagnostic Medicine & Pathobiology, KSU
Joane Nagel, Sociology, KU
Philip Nel, English, KSU
David Nualart, Mathematics, KU
Berl Oakley, Molecular Biosciences, KU
Rosemary O’Leary, Public Affairs & Administration, KU
Harald E. L. Prins, Anthropology, KSU
Jeffrey J. Quirin, Accountancy, WSU
Teresa Radebaugh, Aging, WSU
Charles W. Rice, Agronomy, KSU
Mabel L. Rice, Speech, Language & Hearing, KU
Juergen A. Richt, Diagnostic Medicine & Pathobiology, KSU
Jim Riviere, Veterinary Medicine, KSU
Thomas E. Roche, Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, KSU
Dan Rockhill, Architecture, KU
Jan Roskam, Aerospace Engineering, KU
Edmund Russell, History, KU
Paul Selden, Geology, KU
James Shanteau, Psychological Sciences, KSU
Prakash P. Shenoy, Business, KU
Christopher Sorensen, Physics, KSU
Brian Spooner, Biology, KSU
Valentino Stella, Chemistry, KU
Barbara Timmerman, Chemistry, KU
Mike Tokach, Animal Sciences Industry, KSU
Ann Turnbull, Education, KU
H. Rutherford Turnbull III, Education, KU
David B. Volkin, Pharmaceutical Chemistry, KU
Philine Wangemann, Anatomy & Physiology, KSU
Ruth Welti, Biology, KSU
G. Paul Willhite, Engineering, KU
George S. Wilson, Chemistry, KU
Dean Zollman, Physics, KSU

cc: Social Media Policy Workgroup (Kevin Johnson, Max McCoy, Kristin Rupp, Melissa J. Hunsicker Walburn, Julia Keen, Jeff Morris, Browyn Conrad, Dacia Clark, Charles Epp, Easan Selvan, Mark Fisher, Victoria Mosack, Richard Muma), Governor Sam Brownback, KSU President Kirk Schulz, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, WSU President John W. Bardo, KSU Provost April Mason, KU Provost Jeff Vitter, WSU Provost Tony Vizzini, KSU Faculty Senate President Julia Keen, KU Faculty Senate President Chris Steadham, KSU Director of Government Relations Sue Peterson


UPDATE, 15 Apr. 2014, 1:00 pm: Philine Wangemann’s name was omitted from the original version of this letter. It has now been added. Apologies for the omission. Tom Roche’s name was added, but without the final “e.” Apologies for the misspelling.

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The Art and Wisdom of Kadir Nelson

“I think a lot of people choose their professions out of fear….. But I’ve found that the opposite is true. If you choose something you love, you can become a master of it.”

— Kadir Nelson, Kansas State University, 12 Apr. 2014

Kadir Nelson, 12 April 2014As an admirer of Kadir Nelson’s work, I was thrilled to meet him and to hear him speak today.  So, let me start by saying this: if you’ve an interest in art, portraiture, children’s literature, invite Kadir Nelson to speak.  You won’t be disappointed. Not all artists (poets, novelists, etc.) are good at talking about their work.  But Nelson is.

Working without notes and with many illustrations, he took us on a journey from a three-year-old Kadir trying to draw a self-portrait, right up to the inspiration for his latest book, Baby Bear (2014). Happily, Nelson’s mother saved his artwork, offering glimpses of the artist as a child, and then young man. He was always drawing. And, as he noted, “As I grew older, I began to improve because I was drawing every day.” Nelson’s dedication to his craft offers further evidence for Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule — i.e., that you have to work at something for 10,000 hours to become proficient at it.

Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship (cover)Versatile, prolific and immensely talented, he’s had an extraordinary career so far. Since you’re reading this on my blog, you probably know him as the award-winning creator of many children’s books: Ellington Is Not a Street (2004), Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2006), Henry’s Freedom Box: A Story from the Underground Railroad (2007), We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (2008), Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (2011), Nelson Mandela (2013), or — his latest — Baby Bear (2014).

But you may not know that Nelson’s art also appears on U.S. postage stamps, magazine covers, album covers — including the latest Drake album. Indeed, he also may be the only children’s author to count Drake, Spike Lee, Will Smith and the late Michael Jackson among his fans.  Indeed, his art not only hangs in galleries, but is in the private collections of Shaquille O’Neal, Venus Williams, Sharon Stone, and Stephen Spielberg.

Kadir Nelson, Drake's Nothing Was the Same

As he told us today, his first job after graduating from the Pratt Institute was designing storyboards to help Debbie Allen pitch Amistad to Stephen Spielberg. While that may suggest that Nelson lives a charmed existence, it’s actually an example of him following his effort, and pursuing opportunities — because you never know where your business card will land, which person you meet may lead to a job. Addressing any students who might not be taking full advantage of their education (tempted away from their studies by the relatively unstructured time of college), he said, “I would urge you to not waste your time, to be purposeful in what you’re doing. Because you never know how that’s going to impact your life.”

He realized early on that he would only be happy if he pursued his love for creating art. Initially, Nelson thought he would study architecture. He’d heard all about “starving artists,” he said, and “I’m allergic to starving.” A career as an architect seemed a better bet.  However, he soon discovered that his heart wasn’t in it. Even though he was at Pratt on an architecture scholarship (and would have to give it up if he changed his subject of study), he decided to switch his major from architecture to painting. He knew, he said, “even if I had to starve, I would be happy.”  As he observed, “I think a lot of people choose their professions out of fear…. But I’ve found that the opposite is true. If you choose something you love, you can become a master of it.”

Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear (2014)Most of his work has been devoted to telling the African American story. “Not only is that my story, but it’s a good story — it’s very juicy,” he said — adding, wryly, “There’s a lot of drama.” But his latest book pursues a philosophical strain that echoes the moments of advice he offered today. I had read Baby Bear as a tale about a child (represented as a bear) finding his way home, gently being guided in the right direction by the other animals. However, Nelson explained, the bear’s search for home is more a metaphor “for finding your own true, authentic self.” In this sense (and this is my observation), the book is more Crockett Johnson‘s The Emperor’s Gifts (1965) than Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth’s Let’s Go Home, Little Bear (1995).

But, of course, the best children’s books operate on multiple levels. The philosophical resonances may elude my niece (who will be getting her very own signed copy of the book!), but the journey resonates with readers of all ages. Nelson’s narrative art keeps us turning the pages. The vivid paintings draw us in, make us feel, make us think. And then we come back to the book and read it again.

Thanks to Kansas State University’s Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (ChaLC) for organizing this, to all the sponsors for funding it, and to Kadir Nelson for coming!

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Advice for Aspiring Academics: A Twitter Essay

TwitterI have long been wanting to write a general “advice” essay for aspiring academics — recent PhDs, graduate students, anyone pursuing (or considering pursuing) a career in academia. The problem is that my desire to mentor and to encourage always collides with my equally strong desire not to mislead people about how challenging (even bleak) a prospect this is. Somehow, tweeting the advice made it easier to write. Here it is.

For those who prefer to read something that is not a series of Tweets, here it is in a more typical format.

Yes, my advice for aspiring academics…

  1. Publish everything. Also: always be publishing. You should always have something in the pipeline (under consideration, forthcoming, etc.). Once it’s under consideration, you can list it on your CV. (Some list articles in progress on CV, but I only list books in progress. Both approaches are fine.)
  2. Believe in and doubt merit. Believe because it motivates you to produce, inspires you to keep going. But doubt because the vast number of Ph.Ds on the job market means that merit is not enough. Remember also that “merit” is subjective, masks privilege, and should not be trusted.
  3. Seize as many opportunities as you can, but also be selective. Pursue collaboration with others, conferences, placement in essay collections or special issue of journal — but only if these help you achieve larger scholarly and intellectual goals (such as, say, a book).
  4. Like academe itself, this advice is sometimes absurd, paradoxical, impossible. Recognize that.
  5. Take care of yourself. Exercise regularly. Sit with correct posture, etc. Do not sacrifice your health.
  6. Above all, pursue meaningful work. That is the best reason to stick with academe, despite the odds.
  7. Know also that you don’t have to stick with academe. Leaving is not failure. You’re smart and capable. You can do many things.

I will expand this into a proper essay.  But, at present… no time to offer more than this (admittedly flawed, hasty) summary.  There’s more advice on my blog, but, really, you should take a look at Robin Bernstein’s page of Advice for Grad Students and Other Academics. Lots of great resources there.

Update, 19 Aug. 2015: the full, expanded version of this piece appeared in today’s Inside Higher Education.

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Kansas Board of Regents Wins Muzzle Award; Revised Social Media Policy Wins Praise

Kansas Board of Regents

The reviews are in, and they’re good. The Social Media Policy Workgroup‘s revision to the Kansas Board of Regents’ social media policy has won near-unanimous praise. People are saying things like:

“reasonable”

— Chuck Epp, co-chairman of the Workgroup and Professor of Public Affairs, University of Kansas (he is summarizing the response thus far).

“entirely appropriate”

— Susan Twombly, Professor of Education, University of Kansas

“a vast improvement”

— Chris Steadham, Faculty Senate President, University of Kansas

“It begins and ends by affirming academic freedom.”

— Philip Nel, Professor of English, Kansas State University

(Yes, that last one is me.) It’s unusual to have such wide agreement among academics. Because the revised policy is so sound, critics of the Kansas Board of Regents’ current policy have mostly been holding their tongues, hoping that the Regents will heed the advice they’ve solicited. On April 16th, the Workgroup will present the new policy to the Regents, and on May 14th the Regents will let us know whether they’ll accept the recommended changes.

As we await their decision, it’s worth remembering that the Kansas Board of Regents’ current social media policy has met with near universal disdain. Indeed, that disdain is currently what the board is best known for.  Type in “Kansas Board of Regents” into Google, and this is what you get:

Kansas Board of Regents, acc. to Google

Yes, Google only suggests “social media” and “social media policy” as related terms, which in and of themselves do not convey the disdain. However, if you take those suggestions and read some of the search results, you find plenty of criticism, much of it withering. Most recently, the Kansas Board of Regents won a Jefferson Muzzle Award:

The Regents adopted this first-of-its-kind policy without consulting university leaders or faculty who, unsurprisingly, were not pleased. … Reaction to the policy from national academic freedom advocates was also negative. The American Association of University Professors described the policy as “a gross violation of the fundamental principles of academic freedom that have been a cornerstone of American higher education for nearly a century,” while the Student Press Law Center warned that the “breathtaking” sweep of the regulation evidenced “an eagerness to control the off-the-clock lives of employees that is itself cause for suspicion.”

… The Board of Regents could have issued a strong signal of support for the principles of academic freedom and free expression by suspending the current social media policy and pledging to implement the workgroup’s recommendations. Instead, 36 member schools are left sitting below a virtual sword of Damocles, waiting to see how—or even if—the Regents will remove it. This 2014 Jefferson Muzzle is therefore awarded to the Kansas Board of Regents in hopes that First Amendment principles will guide them in resolving this issue as well as those they may face in the future.

The only people speaking out in favor of the policy have been the Regents themselves, and the occasional representative from the Kansas Legislature — a group that, in its current term, has pursued laws making it easier to hit children, legalizing discrimination against gays, nullifying federal environmental laws, and nullifying federal gun laws. (In sum, if Kansas legislators are your only allies, you may want to rethink your position.) Here’s a sampling of what people have said about the Regents’ current social media policy:

I can’t imagine how that would hold up in court. How do you measure harmony among co-workers? To the extent that you can, how do you prove causality? And what about when the “harmony” is either forced — as it almost certainly would be under this policy — or, worse, a form of delusional groupthink? What if the groupthink involves, say, discrimination?

— Matt Reed, “A Lump of Coal for Kansas,” Inside Higher Ed, 19 Dec. 2013.

Does your job own your civil liberties when you’re off the clock? Does it own your thoughts, expressed freely, when you’re home? Are we saying that the government can’t abridge your constitutional rights, but that The Brand can? If you answer instantly, “yes,” think again about what you’re saying, and about the kind of country in which you want to live.

— Charles P. Pierce, “The Tyranny of the Brand,” Esquire: The Politics Blog, 19 Dec. 2013.

In giving university leaders the authority to discipline or terminate even tenured professors for vague, subjective offenses, the regents have set up a chilling environment that runs contrary to the ideal of academic freedom.

— “Kansas Board of Regents social media rules imperil free speech,” Kansas City Star, 20 Dec. 2013.

Whatever threat is posed by social media at state universities should be balanced against the threat of those universities becoming known as places that don’t tolerate the free flow of ideas among their faculty and staff. The possibility that the policy could affect universities’ ability to recruit and retain top faculty members seems like a reasonable concern.

— “Editorial: Curbing Speech,” Lawrence Journal-World, 22 Dec. 2013.

It’s an anti-free speech manifesto that sounds like a pronouncement from the government of a banana republic. The Board of Regents truly should back up, take a deep breath, and decide on something that meets the needs of its great universities.

— “New Regents policy really bad idea,” Manhattan Mercury, 22 Dec. 2013.

The regents seem to have milked the Guth incident for maximum possible censorship, and now the verboten also extends to statements that are “contrary to the best interests of the university” or anything that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among coworkers.” It is these two phrases’ ominously wide reach—and overt insistence on lockstep fealty—that are legitimately terrifying. … Of course, the regents may think they’re stemming a rising tide of inflammatory violence-tweets, but in reality theirs is an outsized, reactionary maneuver that harnesses hysteria to further a repressive agenda.

— Rebecca Schuman, “The Brave New World of Academic Censorship: If you’re a professor in Kansas, better stay off the Internet,” Slate, 22 Dec. 2013.

And because of the public role these universities serve, threatening to fire professors and staff members if they post something on social media that is “contrary to the best interests of the university” violates free speech rights and becomes a First Amendment issue.

— “Our View: Kansas regents overreach,” Joplin Globe, 28 Dec. 2013

At its heart, the Kansas policy exemplifies a larger problem afflicting all of government – the hair-trigger use of punitive authority whenever the agency’s public image is imperiled. At many, if not most, government agencies today, it is easier to get fired for making the agency look bad than for actually doing your job badly.

— Frank D. LoMonte, “A Dangerous Policy,” Inside Higher Ed, 2 Jan. 2014.

The policy stifles free expression, adversely affects morale at all universities, makes it harder for us to recruit top-tier faculty, and indeed makes it likely that our own faculty will seek work elsewhere. If we lack the ability to debate controversial ideas, we cannot do our jobs as teachers or scholars.

— “Distinguished Professors from KU and KSU: Open Letter to the Kansas Board of Regents.” This ad ran in the Manhattan Mercury, the Lawrence Journal-World, and the Topeka Capital Journal on 12 Jan. 2014.

if the new policy is implemented, professors could be subject to termination if their disagreement is professed too loudly, or in the wrong way, or even at all.

Fortunately, I happen to be writing from the relative safety of Texas, where repressive tactics like those proposed in Kansas haven’t – as yet – gained much purchase. But I wonder whether, if I raised these same modest objections in Wichita or Topeka, I could be subject to termination. No wonder the Kansas professoriate and the American Association of University Professors are pushing back. The essential nature of the university – in Kansas and elsewhere – is at risk.

— John M. Crisp, “A university isn’t a business, even in Kansas,” The Gulf Today [United Arab Emirates], 4 Feb. 2014.

Uncensor Kansas

There’s an abundance of negative reviews — student governments, faculty senates, and many others have called for the policy’s suspension or removal.  I’ve not included all here. If you’re interested, you might peruse this more extensive list of press coverage, at the bottom of my original post on the subject.

If they elect to retain the current policy or make only cosmetic modifications to it, the Kansas Board of Regents can expect more bad press. So, I hope the Regents will adopt the carefully revised policy, created by the workgroup that they formed.  They have a golden opportunity to make Kansas famous for thoughtfulness, and to offer a model social media policy for other universities to emulate.

Will they do the right thing? I guess we’ll find out on May 14th.  Until then, our rights remain tenuous, at best.  Even though the days are getting warmer, a chilling climate persists on the campuses of Kansas universities.


Image sources: Kansas Board of Regents, Google search for “Kansas Board of Regents,” Uncensor Kansas (Facebook page). On Facebook, there’s also the more active group, Kansas Universities’ Faculty & Staff Against Regents’ Speech Policy.

A more comprehensive list of relevant links can be found here, and of course there are several posts on this blog tagged Kansas Board of Regents.

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Five on the Hour: Freedom of Speech

Uncensor KansasThis is an open letter to our colleagues at the Regents universities in Kansas (Emporia State University, Fort Hays State University, Kansas State University, Pittsburg State University, University of Kansas, University of Kansas Medial Center, Wichita State University), but anyone who would like to participate is welcome to do so!


Dear Colleagues,

As the Kansas Board of Regents prepares to consider the workgroup’s recommended changes to its social media policy, we’re inviting you to join us in helping students understand the important implications for themselves, their university, and their society.  On Monday April 21 and Tuesday April 22, we’re going to do a “Five on the Hour Pause,” where at the top of the hour we each take 5 minutes to talk a little bit about why freedom of speech is important to our discipline, academia, and the culture at large.

We’re doing it at the top of each hour to provide a sense of the unifying, interdisciplinary importance of this topic. We’re proposing two days to cover classes that meet MWF as well as Tu-Th.  If your class meets once a week but not on a Monday or Tuesday, then we invite you to simply take five minutes during that class on whatever day it meets.  We believe this is an important teaching moment for all the students at our campus.

If you are interested in participating, here are a few guidelines we suggest you follow:
(1) Present a clear explanation of academic freedom.  We’ve drafted a statement, but you should feel free to modify it, if you think it needs modifying:

The university is a community of scholars. As scholars, we discover new knowledge and create new ideas. These ideas are different from what has come before, and difference can be controversial. Indeed, sometimes our ideas challenge social mores. To test our ideas, we debate them, refine them, change them. This process of creation and discovery — evaluated through open and unfettered dialogue — is the means by which our civilization progresses. And the only environment under which this process can occur is an environment of free speech.

(2) Identify the discipline-specific implications for the class you’re teaching.  How have unconventional or controversial ideas, research methods, literature, etc. impacted the field your students study with you?

(3) Invite students to read the KBOR’s policy and the workgroup’s recommendation for a new policy.   Inform them about the process involved thus far, who the participants are in these current events, as well as the timetable for public commentary: <http://www.k-state.edu/today/announcement.php?id=13496>.  Invite them to explore further the connection between “real world” current events and the concept of academic freedom as it pertains to the subject they study in your course.  Do not require your students to take any specific action.  Do not use class time to lobby on the issue: remember that this is a teaching moment and not a form of political activity, in keeping with Kansas State law and KBOR policies.

Here are some informative links you might share with them:

Thanks very much for considering joining us.

Sincerely yours,

Lynn Davidman, Department of Sociology, University of Kansas
Elizabeth Dodd, Department of English, Kansas State University
Susan Kemper, Department of Psychology, University of Kansas
Philip Nel, Department of English, Kansas State University
Harald E.L. Prins, Department of Anthropology, Kansas State University
Chris Sorensen, Department of Physics, Kansas State University


Image source: Uncensor Kansas (Facebook page). On Facebook, there’s also the more active group, Kansas Universities’ Faculty & Staff Against Regents’ Speech Policy.

A more comprehensive list of relevant links can be found here, and of course there are several posts on this blog tagged Kansas Board of Regents.

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