Archive for May 14, 2014

The object of power is power: a report from today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting

“The object of power is power.”

— O’Brien, in George Orwell’s 1984

Some of the KSU contingent: (back row) Todd Gabbard, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Abby Knoblauch, Philip Nel; (front row) Elizabeth Dodd, Sierra Hale, and Lexiyee SmithTo support the basic right to freedom of speech and to stand up for academic freedom, faculty, staff, and students from Kansas universities attended today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting in Topeka, Kansas. The room was packed: standing room only.  The Board of Regents were cheerful, chummy, and completely indifferent to the rights of those whom they allegedly represent. They rescinded our rights to freedom of speech, but they did it with a smile. Fred Logan told us that the Regents respect us, and passed a policy that does not respect academic freedom.

He is a canny politician, and I could see him going places. I mean that both as a compliment to him and as a caution to the people of Kansas. In other words, I am being both sarcastic and completely sincere. Not only does Mr. Logan have the ability to say (with apparent sincerity) words like “respect” without actually meaning them, but the very first thing he did upon entering the room was come up and introduce himself to me. (I was seated in the front row.)

Fred Logan [smiling]: Philip Nel?  Fred Logan.

I stand up. We shake hands.

Logan: It’s nice to meet you.

Me: It’s interesting to meet you.

Logan: I’ve read what you’ve written about me, and I’ve looked at your website.  Don DeLillo?

Me: Yes.

Logan: I read Falling Man, and I was thinking about reading White Noise next. Good choice?

Me: Yes. White Noise is a great choice. That’s the one to read.  [Pause.]  So, are you really going to go through with this policy? Or —

Logan: [Smiling, makes non-committal sound, walks away, waves, and takes his place at the Regents’ Desk of Governance.]

Hence, my first tweet:

And then, the meeting got underway.  

Kansas Board of Regents, at start of meeting, 14 May 2014 Regents’ Chair Fred Logan said of the revised social media policy, “I want to thank the members of the workgroup who worked on this. I in particular want to recognize the co-chairs of the group. They did spectacular work.” He added, “I also want to welcome and thank all the members of the faculty for coming.”

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineThat was just one of many examples where Mr. Logan said one thing, but the actions of the Regents conveyed a rather different message. The revised policy retains all punitive parts. You can still be fired for a broad array of vaguely defined speech, such as uttering something “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”  Presumably, a blog post (like this one) that is critical of the Kansas Board of Regents might be included in this restriction.  You can also be fired for speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary.”  This particular language, of course, inspired our “Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline” t-shirts. How would one go about measuring the harmonious content of speech? How might we determine whether speech is disloyal?  And as for impairing discipline, if I were to write that the Kansas Board of Regents have brought shame to the state of Kansas, and that all of them should resign effective immediately, is that a fireable offense?

Because they have done precisely that. In addition to all the negative national publicity this has already received, here’s a story from National Public Radio, this evening. National Public Radio: "In Kansas, Professors Must Now Watch What They Tweet" Kansas is already known for being anti-science (evolution? just a theory!). Now, Kansas is known for its opposition to freedom of speech. If you’re trying to attract top faculty to Kansas universities, you have your work cut out for you. When Fred Logan got to the social media policy, Emporia State University’s Sheryl Lidzy read — on behalf of the Kansas Council of Faculty Senate Presidents — a great defense of freedom of speech. It included such gems as this:

we fear that the most important point continues to be ignored. That point is this: a university system cannot properly function when external groups are allowed to influence university personnel decisions whenever they find certain speech to be objectionable. Because the punitive aspects of this policy create precisely this “heckler’s veto” scenario for controversial speech, we must once again respectfully request that the Board reconsider its determination that the disciplinary aspects of this policy are necessary and desirable.

As Prof. Lidzy read, Regents looked on, with — as my colleague Christina Hauck observed — expressions of “boredom and distaste” for the Faculty Senate Presidents. Kansas Board of Regents, bored, as they listen (or don't) to Council of Faculty Senate Presidents. Photo by Christina Hauck. Lidzy continued:

there are certain rights and responsibilities that are non-negotiable. However expedient it may seem at the time to surrender these cornerstones of the academic mission, there are certain principles that cannot be bargained away, because once they are conceded, the integrity of the entire enterprise is compromised. The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment and this is why we continue to oppose the punitive aspects of this policy.

The Kansas Board of Regents were unmoved. And yet Fred Logan said, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.”

I found these sort of responses fascinating. Throughout this process, the Board’s attitude towards faculty has been condescending, patronizing, even hostile. The policy itself establishes new ways to fire people, based on very broadly defined objectionable speech. However, Regent Logan says, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.” The vast gap between word and deed is truly breathtaking. This is why I think that Mr. Logan may have a bright future in Kansas politics. Directly after Professor Lidzy’s statement, Logan got up, and rushed over to give her an award for her service, which — he said — the Board very much appreciated.  Again, he is thanking her, even while he completely disregards what she has said.

At the meeting we also learned that the Moody’s downgrade of Kansas’s credit rating (thanks to Governor Brownback and the legislature’s fiscal recklessness) will result in higher borrowing rates for Kansas universities. As my colleague Don Hedrick pointed out after the meeting, the Kansas Board of Regents’ actions also downgrades the rating of Kansas universities.

The Regents passed their punitive social media policy. Of the policy, Fred Logan said, “This will be the strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom that appears anywhere in our policy manual.” While it is true that the Regents did adopt the workgroup’s recommendations on language affirming academic freedom, it is also true that the Regents retained the original language eviscerating academic freedom. So, if this is their “strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom,” that’s hardly a cause for rejoicing.

With smiles, conviviality, and bland affirmations of freedom of speech, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy that tells faculty and staff: watch what you say. Of course, Kansas is merely part of a trend of cracking down on freedom of speech. South Carolina’s legislature has punished the College of Charleston for assigning a book, and installed a white supremacist as their new president. A dean at the University of Saskatchewan was just fired for speaking his mind. So, the Kansas Board of Regents are not unusual. They are normal. And they are the future. Indeed, to paraphrase George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine sensible shoes stamping on a human face—forever.1

——

1. The actual line from Orwell’s 1984 is “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But the Kansas Board of Regents tends to wear sensible shoes, and not boots.


Update, 10:30 pm, 15 May 2014

in response to Nena Beckley’s comment below, I’ve added (in the comments) a link to the revised policy.  I’m also adding that information here:

Here’s some media coverage (updated 9:00 am, 16 May 2014):

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Kansas Faculty Senates ask Regents for “Freedom to speak without fear of reprisal”

University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, University of Kansas Medical CenterHere is the statement from the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents, read at today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting, about 20 minutes ago.


As the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents, it is our responsibility to express to the Board the concerns of the faculty we represent. When the Social Media Policy was introduced in December, we recognized that connecting terminations to faculty speech was extremely problematic, and we requested an opportunity for input and collaboration prior to its passage. This request was denied.

When the newly enacted policy predictably generated national attention and widespread controversy, we were pleased with the Board’s willingness to form a Work Group and revisit the policy. In light of the considerable distraction and backlash created by the policy, we requested a suspension of the policy pending the Work Group’s recommendations. This request was also denied.

When the Work Group’s extensive research failed to identify any university in the nation with a similarly punitive policy, we were hopeful that the widespread and enthusiastic support for the Work Group recommendations would persuade the Board to adopt an advisory policy that would align Kansas with best practices within higher education. Up to this point in the process, this request – like the others before it – has been denied.

Today, we stand before the Board, once again reiterating our unanimous opposition to the chilling effect created by the punitive aspects of this policy. Although we appreciate the creation of the Work Group, and the Governance Committee’s adoption of considerable portions of the Work Group proposal, we fear that the most important point continues to be ignored. That point is this: a university system cannot properly function when external groups are allowed to influence university personnel decisions whenever they find certain speech to be objectionable. Because the punitive aspects of this policy create precisely this “heckler’s veto” scenario for controversial speech, we must once again respectfully request that the Board reconsider its determination that the displinary aspects of this policy are necessary and desirable.

In conclusion, we accept the premise that the Board has acted in good faith and has endeavored to act in the best interests of the Regent’s universities. While we accept this premise, we disagree with the Board’s analysis of the universities’ best interests. In recent years, we have been asked to become more efficient, we have been asked to do more with less, we have been asked to undergo post-tenure review, and we have been asked to improve our standing among our peers across the nation. Believing that our advocates have our best interests at heart, we have willingly embraced all of these challenges, and have already begun to succeed on many fronts. Yet, there are certain rights and responsibilities that are non-negotiable. However expedient it may seem at the time to surrender these cornerstones of the academic mission, there are certain principles that cannot be bargained away, because once they are conceded, the integrity of the entire enterprise is compromised. The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment and this is why we continue to oppose the punitive aspects of this policy. This policy will continue to be plagued with controversy and opposition as long as it exists.

Because of these imperative principles, and because of practical concerns that this issue will continue to pose a distraction and a drain upon precious time and resources, we once again respectfully ask the Board to adopt the Work Group recommendations in their entirety.

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