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 They rescinded our rights to freedom of speech, but they did it with a smile.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):

20 Comments »

  1. Donna Potts Said,

    May 14, 2014 @ 10:30 pm

    Thanks a lot, Phil. And I might add that the wearer of the shoes smiles broadly as he’s stomping, thanking you for lying there. Sorry I could be there only in spirit, but I know the feeling.

  2. Lee Behlman Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 1:24 am

    This is admirable work you’re doing in reporting on this matter, Phil. Keep up the great work.

    Lee

  3. Dave Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 5:45 am

    Thanks for this summary, Phil. I was wondering if Sheryl would refuse the framed certificate, and wondering if I would have done the same if I happened to be in her position.

  4. Amy Lara Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 9:56 am

    Thank you for the excellent posts, Phil. One of the things about this whole process that has bothered me most is the way the regents cynically exploited the very hard (and unpaid) labor of the working group. They simply used them to do the research on what kind of language would sound free-speechy-ish, incorporated a large chunk of it without changing the policy itself, and then used that as fodder for their spin machine. Now they can say they’re pro-free-speech, that they listened to faculty concerns, and that they’ve incorporated the bulk of the working group recommendations. Those talking points are repeated over and over, and they are fooling any journalists who aren’t paying attention. Amazingly savvy politics there.

  5. Philip Nel Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    Thanks, Donna, Lee, Dave, and Amy.

    Dave: At the next Kansas Board of Regents meeting, I fully expect Fred Logan to present me with an award for my distinguished service. Alas, I shall be unable to attend.

    Amy: I concur. Mr. Logan & His Merry Band of Censors are no fools. They’re savvy, ruthless, and effective.

  6. Dear Kansas Board of Regents, Part Deux » Duck of Minerva Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

    […] for a letter he had sent criticizing his university (Alamenciak May 14, 2014).  Regardless of your cheery faces during the Regents meeting, my former colleagues should be scared. Proposed restrictions on the free speech rights of […]

  7. Charles Hatfield Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

    My god, this whole business is infuriating, and alarming. Glad to read your updates, Phil; keep us posted, and keep shining a light on this kind of euphemized tyranny.

  8. Kristin Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

    Does it impact/apply to tenured faculty?

  9. Philip Nel Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

    Kristin: Yes. The policy applies to all university employees.

  10. Mike Herman Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

    Excellent post Phil. I suggest that when we encounter KBOR members at the various graduation ceremonies this weekend that they hear VOCAL feedback to what they’ve done. A believe a round of “BOO and HISS” would be in order. It would be excellent if this idea went viral across the state.

  11. Richard Marston Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    In the NPR story, Fred Logan is quoted as characterizing opposition to the KBOR social media policy as “ludicrous.” But he does respect us anyway. Good grief. One lesson from all of this: a university board of regents needs at least one member who has actually worked in a university, so can explain to the other members the purpose of a university and what is meant by academic freedom of speech. This bunch of regents is clueless.

  12. Philip Nel Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    Dick: Maybe he was referring to our “Loyalty, Harmony, and Discipline” t-shirts. I would describe them as satirical, myself. On the other hand, Mr. Logan is adept at using words without meaning them — “ludicrous” is likely just being deployed as a generic term for disapproval. One could, for example, describe a Board of Regents composed of people who lack experience in academia as “ludicrous.”

    Mike: (Un)fortunately, I won’t be attending graduation. BOOs and HISSes are one option. If I were on the platform (as I was this past December), I would see if others might join me in turning their backs on the Regent representative, during his remarks. (I think Mr. Logan will still be presiding; Mr. Wilk will be Supreme Lord Regent next year.)

  13. Nena Beckley Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    Please give the policy statement in full. One feels great sympathy towards your faculty being deprived of free speech, but if you are going to reach beyond the state of Kansas, you must be clear about what you are objecting to in the Board of Regents policies–and this means stating the policies in your declamations.

    Nena Beckley–a fellow Kansan who attended the University of Kansas.

  14. Philip Nel Said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

    Nena: the objectionable parts are sections 3.ii and 3.iv, which you can find on p. 35 of yesterday’s meeting agenda (pdf). The entire revised policy begins on p. 33 of that document, and concludes on p. 36.

  15. Reactions to Kansas Social Media Policy | Academe Blog Said,

    May 16, 2014 @ 8:54 am

    […] Phil Nel, a Kansas faculty member and blogger who has been in the forefront of the fight against the policy, describes the Orwellian board meeting at which the policy was adopted–with board members blandly affirming their respect for faculty and commitment to academic freedom while passing an egregious policy that threatens academic freedom. Read his post. […]

  16. Commencement Weekend Links! | Gerry Canavan Said,

    May 17, 2014 @ 8:12 pm

    […] * Kansas and the death of academic freedom. […]

  17. Debbie Gordon Said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

    Hi Phil, I’m at WSU and am writing an academic article about KBOR’s social media policy and most importantly faculty reaction to it from the get go. Do you know if anyone attended from WSU? Any administrators? Our Faculty Senate President, Victoria Mosack? I’m just looking to see if someone from WSU actually reacted and said something to anyone about it. Also, I submitted an op ed to the Kansas City Star and a different one to the Wichita Eagle. I will find your email and send them to you.

  18. Philip Nel Said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

    I think your Faculty Senate President was there. All the Faculty Senate Presidents stood while Sheryl Lidzy read the great joint statement. And the university presidents — or “CEOs,” as the Regents call them — were there, too. I assume all provosts also attended. I know K-State’s was there, and KU’s was, too.

  19. The object of power is power: a report from today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting | society & education Said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 8:20 am

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

  20. Academic Freedom/Speech and Its Consequences | stevendkrause.com Said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 11:46 am

    […] The object of power is power: a report from today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting,” which has lots and lots of detail about the Kansas BoR meeting, the twitter stream around it, the policy itself, and lots of media coverage of it. Oh, and Phil’s recounting of chatting with some of the regents. […]

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