Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Children's Literature 42 (2014)Like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat owes a debt to blackface minstrelsy.

In my “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination” (in the new issue of Children’s Literature), I explore the implications of this fact.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

In 1955, Dr. Seuss and William Spaulding—director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division—stepped into the publisher’s elevator at 2 Park Street in Boston. As Seuss’s biographers tell us, the elevator operator was an elegant, petite woman who wore white gloves and a secret smile (Morgan and Morgan 154). They don’t mention that she was Annie Williams, nor do they say that she was African American (Silvey). Seuss was on that elevator because Spaulding thought he could solve the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis by writing a better reading primer. When Seuss sketched this book’s feline protagonist, he gave him Mrs. Williams’s white gloves, her sly smile, and her color. However, she is but one African American influence on Seuss’s most famous character. One source for that red bow tie is Krazy Kat, the black, ambiguously gendered creation of biracial cartoonist George Herriman (Cohen 325). Seuss, who admired what he called “the beautifully insane sanities” of Krazy Kat (qtd. in Nel, Dr. Seuss 70), also draws upon the traditions of minstrelsy—an influence that emerges first in a minstrel show he wrote for his high school. The Cat in the Hat is racially complicated, inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans. The Cat’s influences help us to track the evolution of the African American cultural imaginary in Seuss’s work, but also, more importantly, to exemplify how children’s literature conceals its own racialized origins. Considering the Cat’s racial complexity both serves as an act of desegregation, acknowledging the “mixed bloodlines” (to borrow Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s phrase) of canonical children’s literature, and highlights how during the 1950s—a turning point for African Americans in children’s literature—picture books were a site where race, representation, and power were actively being contested.

If you want to read the full article, you can access it via ProjectMuse — unless, of course, you can’t.  So, if you work for (or have access to) a library or university that subscribes to ProjectMuse, then please do get the article that way.  Doing so generates revenue for the Children’s Literature Association.  If you can’t get the article that way, then please contact me, and I’ll send you a pdf. (You can find my email address at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)

Thanks to generous individuals (such as Charles Cohen, who provided the photo of the Cat in the Hat toys that you see on the issue’s cover), the article also includes some illustrations. Here are two, both of which are racialized interpretations of the Cat in the Hat — one from 1996 (in which the Cat represents O.J. Simpson) and one from 2012 (in which the Cat represents President Obama).

Alan Katz & Chris Wrinn, The Cat NOT in the Hat! (1996) Loren Spivack, The Cat and the Mitt (2012)

The Cat NOT in the Hat! can be found only in the Library of Congress. Dr. Seuss Enterprises successfully sued its publisher and prevented its distribution on the grounds that it was not a parody: It merely mimicked Seuss’s style to comment on the O.J. Simpson case (Dr. Seuss v. Penguin Books, 1996). Distribution of the book was suppressed. To the best of my knowledge, all copies — save for the one in the Library of Congress — were destroyed.  The Cat and the Mitt is a special election-year version of Loren Spivack’s The New Democrat, which can be purchased from Mr. Spivack’s website.

There would be more than eight pictures in my article, but Dr. Seuss Enterprises (the corporate entity which oversees the licensing and production of all things Seuss) would not grant permission to reprint any images to which it controls the rights. As I’ve always had good relations with the Seuss people in the past, I asked why. I received no response, but my guess is that the “no” has something to do with the fact that the article addresses Seuss and race. When I wrote the Seuss bio. for the Seussville.com website, my original version included commentary on Seuss’s racist wartime cartoons — I framed the issue in what I thought was a sympathetic way, noting that his earlier stereotypes ultimately yielded to greater understanding (as in the anti-racist Horton Hears a Who! and The Sneetches). Such an approach offered a redemptive reading of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s work on race. But I was asked to cut that. Since I was writing for a corporate website, I did as I was asked to do.

Published in an academic journal (instead of on a corporate website), this new article has the freedom to offer a more complicated, more nuanced reading of Seuss and race. I realize that it still needs work, and I will rewrite and revise further for the book-chapter version. But it’s the best work I’ve done on Seuss and race so far. So, I thought I’d share a snippet here — with, as I say, more available for any who wish to pursue the topic further.

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Posters for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

Remain Vigilant (small version)Under the Kansas Board of Regents‘ brave new social media policy, the faculty and staff of Kansas universities must make sure that their speech is harmonious, loyal, and conducive to discipline.  So, the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty and Discipline is here to help you monitor speech. Our staff artist, Comrade Warner, has created these four handy visual aids — all designed to be printed as 24″ x 36″ posters. These come to you under Creative Commons: so, please print, make posters, put on t-shirts, remix, distribute.

Remember: Report speech that may promote disloyalty. Report suspect faculty immediately. Surveillance is freedom!

Stamp Out Fires: Report Suspect Faculty Immediately


Report Speech That Could Promote Disharmony


Report Speech That Could Promote Disloyalty


Remain Vigilant for Speech That Could Impair Discipline by Superiors


For more information, here’s

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Freedom of Speech in Kansas: What Next?

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineIn light of the Kansas Board of Regents’ decision to double down on its repressive social media policy, people keep asking me: What next?

First, we may have lost this battle, but that doesn’t mean we’ll lose the war. In any case, opposing injustice does not mean that you’re going to win every time. The Kansas Board of Regents have established themselves as enemies of freedom of speech, and of higher education. They don’t feel compelled to listen to the faculty and staff they ostensibly govern, but governance without consent of the governed doesn’t work well in the long term. Stable governance requires credibility. The Board has abdicated its credibility and its responsibility.

Second, the policy remains so absurdly broad that we can either muzzle ourselves or keep speaking up. I’m not particularly good at muzzling myself. (Have you noticed?) And I’m not going to waste my time policing my speech for its loyalty, its harmonious content, its ability to impede discipline, or whether it furthers the “best interests of the university.”

hourglassThird, time is our most precious resource. The Regents have wasted thousands of hours of our time. It’s now clear that they convened the workgroup merely to offer themselves cover for their assault on academic freedom. They can say: See? We followed procedure. We listened to the workgroup. Look! Here’s their language in our policy!  What they don’t say, of course, is that they’re merely stapling language affirming academic freedom onto a policy that revokes academic freedom. To waste so much time simply to create a rhetorical cover story is unforgivable. It’s also very clever — they’ve played us well. We assumed they’d act in good faith, when they have never had any interest in acting in good faith. In acting in bad faith and wasting our time, they’ve revealed their true colors. And they’ve persuaded thousands of faculty and staff members that they should never trust the Regents again.

Fourth, back when the Regents announced this policy, I began de-affiliating myself from Kansas State University in all of my social media profiles. It would be too labor-intensive to remove all references to Kansas State University from my blog, but I altered this blog’s “About Philip Nel” page so that it redacts the university’s name. I removed the @KState tag from my Twitter account, deleted Kansas State University from my Facebook page, from my GooglePlus account, and from my Amazon.com author page. I will ask my publishers to remove references to Kansas State University from my future published work, and have stopped providing it for the “About the author” section of any articles I publish. I’ll never be able to fully dissociate my public self from my employer: a quick Google search will reveal where I work, and, when I give a talk, promotional materials invariably name my employer. However, I’ll do my best to minimize my public connection to Kansas State University.

Books written or edited by Philip Nel, as of 2013In the past, Kansas State University’s Division of Communications and Marketing have appreciated it when my work was cited in the media, or when I’ve appeared in the media, or when something I’d written received media attention. Indeed, because I’ve known this, I’ve always asked that my affiliation with Kansas State University be mentioned. And I’ve let them know about any such media attention. But I’ve stopped letting them know about my accomplishments. A book of mine recently won some awards; another has been nominated for a different award. I’ve added those accolades to my CV (which, yes, also identifies my university affiliation), but have otherwise kept that information to myself. And, when interviewed by the media, I will ask that I be identified as the author of whatever the most relevant of my books might be (Dr. Seuss: American Icon for a story on Seuss, say). If universities in Kansas want to benefit from social media, then they’ll need a social media policy that affirms academic freedom.

In any case, if I work for a place where everything I say in public can be used as grounds for my dismissal, then why would I want to be known as a Kansas State University Professor? People will pity me because I work at a place where freedom of speech is no longer allowed. I don’t want to be pitied. I have a reputation to protect, too.

Fifth, there is much that Kansas universities can do to protect faculty and staff against the tyranny of the Regents. We can adopt our own social media policies, modeled on the workgroup’s excellent revision — policies that affirm academic freedom rather than police the content of speech. And we can find creative ways to resist. For example, what the heck would loyal, harmonious, disciplined speech look like? The Regents have declined to offer examples of either appropriate speech or inappropriate speech. Why not have a contest, calling for creative responses (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama) to this puzzling question?  We could make it a statewide event, and publish the winners. It could even be an annual contest.  Another example: we could have one day each semester on which everyone sends out via social media a provocative idea. We can use Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, or whatever the current social media platform is. We could send out provocative ideas from any discipline. It would be fun and educational. Yet another example: what about a conference in which we invite people from other places where academic freedom has been under attack (South Carolina, Colorado, Saskatchewan, etc.)?  That’d be a great way to educate people about freedom of speech.

There are many possibilities!

In light of Wednesday’s decision, we — the faculty, staff, students of Kansas universities — are demoralized. We are down. But we are not out. This fight is not over. It is just beginning.

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The Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline: The Mixes

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineBecause every revolution needs a soundtrack, I assembled a couple of CDs of songs for the drive to and from Topeka, for yesterday’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting. True, the drive is not in fact that long (only an hour each way), but creating playlists is a form of thinking. It’s something I do for fun. Really.

There are only YouTube recordings below. Nearly all of these songs are commercially available — i.e., you can buy individual tracks via iTunes. (I think only the Steinski track at the very end is not on iTunes.  And the Public Enemy recording that opens the mix is not available as an individual track: you need to purchase the entire Do the Right Thing soundtrack.)


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #1

1)     Fight the Power (Soundtrack Version)  PUBLIC ENEMY (1989)                  5:23

I used the version from the Do the Right Thing Soundtrack, which includes Take 6′s intro (of the fictional radio station’s call letters).

2)     Know Your Rights  THE CLASH (1982)                                                3:42

From the Clash’s final studio album, Combat Rock. (No one counts the later Cut the Crap — not even the Calash.) “You have the right to free speech… as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it!”

3)     1984  DAVID BOWIE (1974)                                                             3:27

From Diamond Dogs, which contains a number of songs written for an aborted stage musical of 1984.

4)     Exhuming McCarthy  R.E.M. (1987)                                                       3:22

This song appears on Document, and includes an audio clip from Joseph N. Welch’s famous “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” from the Army-McCarthy hearings.

5)     There Is No Time  LOU REED (1989)                                                 3:47

Lou Reed gets angry, on New York.

6)     Get Up, Stand Up  BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS (1973)                      3:19

7)     You Won’t Stand Alone (ska-sized)  D.O.A. (2004)                                  2:06

8)     Stand  SLY & THE FAMILY STONE (1969)                                            3:07

9)     Power to the People  CURTIS MAYFIELD (1974)                                  3:29

This is the demo version. I used the album version (from Sweet Exorcist).

10)   People Have the Power  PATTI SMITH (1988)                                      5:10

11)   Give the People What They Want  THE O’JAYS (1975)                           4:11

12)   The Stone (Revolution!)  RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR (2012)            3:10

13)   Revolution  NINA SIMONE (1969)                                                      4:41

One of the greatest Beatles covers. Indeed, “cover” is the wrong word. Simone transforms Lennon’s cynical anti-revolutionary song into a genuine call for revolution.

14)   I Fought the Law  DEAD KENNEDYS (1984)                                        2:19

In addition to changing the lyrics to “I fought the law / And I won,” the Dead Kennedys also include such new lyrics as: “The law don’t mean shit if you’ve got the right friends. / That’s how this country’s run” and “You can get away with murder if you’ve got a badge.”

15)   All You Fascists  BILLY BRAGG & WILCO (2000)                                  2:43

Woody Gurthrie’s lyrics, with Bragg’s vocals and Wilco’s music. Here’s a version with Billy Bragg playing the song on his own.

16)   This Land Is Your Land  SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS (2004)      4:37

Magnificent soul arrangement of the Woody Gurthrie classic. Here’s an acoustic version (though I put the original album version on the mix, of course).

17)   Woody Guthrie  ALABAMA 3 (2002)                                                  4:18

18)   People Gotta Be Free  KEB’ MO’ (2004)                                               3:46

Great cover of the Rascals’ original. I couldn’t find Keb’ Mo’s version on YouTube; so, here are the Rascals:

19)   International  JIM’S BIG EGO (2008)                                                    3:37

20)   World Upside Down  JIMMY CLIFF (2012)                                           3:10

21)   Talking Union  THE ALMANAC SINGERS (1941)                                  3:06

Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell — the Almanac Singers — recorded this song for their second record, Talking Union (1941; re-released with additional songs, 1955).  Written by Seeger, Hays, and Lampell, the song uses a “talking blues” style later adopted by Bob Dylan.

22)   Redemption Song  JOE STRUMMER & THE MESCALEROS (2003)           3:28

From his final solo record, the Clash’s Joe Strummer covers Bob Marley.

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #2

1)     The Preamble  LYNN AHRENS (1976)                                                 3:00

From Schoolhouse Rock!

2)     We the People  THE STAPLE SINGERS (1972)                                      3:52

Here’s a performance from Soul Train.

And here’s an excerpt from a promotional film.

3)     Fight the Power  BARENAKED LADIES (1993)                                     4:06

Barenaked Ladies cover Public Enemy! Yes, you read that correctly. It’s actually a great cover. Despite the occasionally goofy turn (“Nutty Buddy was a hero to most”?), I think they otherwise are quite in earnest. In some ways, you might see this as an antecedent to BNL’s “Fun and Games,” one of the most trenchant musical critiques of the Bush administration.

Recorded for Gordon, the cover appears on (of all places) the Coneheads soundtrack. Here are BNL performing it live, in 2009.

4)     American Idiot  GREEN DAY (2004)                                                    2:54

5)     My Favorite Mutiny  THE COUP feat. BLACK THOUGHT and TALIB KWELI (2006)                                                                                  4:36

Here’s the full version.

And here’s an excerpt from a live performance.

6)     I Predict a Riot  KAISER CHIEFS (2005)                                               3:53

7)     Harder Than You Think  PUBLIC ENEMY (2007)                                   4:10

8)     Seven Nation Army  THE WHITE STRIPES (2003)                                 3:52

9)     I Won’t Back Down  TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS (1989)        2:57

10)   You Haven’t Done Nothin’  STEVIE WONDER (1974)                           3:29

11)   Low Light Low Life  P.O.S. feat. DESSA (2009)                                      3:15

12)   Clampdown  THE CLASH (1979)                                                         3:52

“We will teach our twisted speech / To the young believers.” Ah, so many great lyrics in this one, from London Calling, which is (to my mind) the best Clash record.  “Let fury have the hour. / Anger can be power, / If you know that you can use it.”

13)   Freedom  JURASSIC 5 (2002)                                                             3:19

14)   This Little Light  MAVIS STAPLES (2007)                                              3:23

This appears on We’ll Never Turn Back, which — along with London Calling (see track 11, above) is one of my Desert Island Discs.  Here’s a live recording.

15)   Freedom  THE ISLEY BROTHERS (1970)                                             3:39

16)   I Should Be Allowed to Think  THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1994)            3:08

Begins by quoting Ginsburg’s “Howl.”

17)   Express Yourself  CHARLES WRIGHT & THE WATTS 103RD RHYTHM BAND (1972)     3:52

18)   Try This at Home  FRANK TURNER (2012)                                         1:53

19)   Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)  SHAD (2013)                                          3:32

Great song about education, immigration, family, and much more.

20)   Motion Movement  BLUE SCHOLARS (2004)                                       3:47

21)   You Can Get It If You Really Want It  DESMOND DEKKER (1970)         2:40

22)   You Get What You Give  NEW RADICALS (1998)                                5:02

23)   Silent Partner (Peace Out)  STEINSKI (2006)                                         0:52

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline

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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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The Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

The Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy will require vigilant enforcement.  How will we determine when speech is “contrary to the best interests of the employer”?  How will we recognize speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers”?  How can we prevent speech that has a “detrimental impact on close working relationships”?  Given that academics work at all hours of the day and night, what constitutes “during the employee’s working hours”?

Fear not!

We are pleased to announce the formation of the Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline.

Fellow patriots are invited to join our Committee, assisting employees of Kansas universities in promoting harmony, loyalty, and discipline, as per the policy’s prohibition against speech that

3.ii. when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee’s official duties, is contrary to the best interests of the university;

3.iv. … 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, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.

How can you join?

  1. Adopt our uniform!  If you’d like to get one of these shirts, you could go down to Thread in Aggieville (here in Manhttan, KS): they have the design on file. Just walk in and ask for this: “committee for harmony” design, in the May 8 folder. They’ll be able to access it and print you off one more or less immediately.  If you are not in Manhattan, KS, Comrade Todd Gabbard would be happy to send you the file for the shirt so you can have it printed wherever you are. Alternatively, we might be able to make arrangements to get a shirt printed for you here and bring it to Wednesday’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting. Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline: t-shirt
  2. Come to the Kansas Board of Regents meetingWednesday May 14th at 1:30 pm, Board Office, Suite 520, Curtis State Office Building, 100 SW Jackson, Topeka, KS.  If you have one of these t-shirts, wear it to the meeting. We’d like to get as many faculty, students, and staff out to Topeka as we can. The Board of Regents’s new policy will govern the network of public institutions here in Kansas, and will affect us all for years to come.
  3. George Orwell, 1984Recommended reading: George Orwell’s 1984Animal Farm, and “Politics and the English Language.”

Should you have any questions or suggestions, please contact Comrade Todd Gabbard. Remember: Ignorance is strength! Freedom is slavery!

Yours for harmony, loyalty, and discipline,

Comrades Todd Gabbard and Philip Nel

Kansas State University Subcommittee of the

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

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Impairing Discipline and Harmony; or, This Morning’s Twitter-chat with the Kansas Board of Regents

Ignorance is strength.

The Kansas Board of Regents’ Twitter account and I had a somewhat predictable conversation this morning. For any who find might it interesting, I include it below. The short version: The Kansas Board of Regents insists that academic freedom is now protected; however, sections 3.ii and 3.iv (see p. 32 of agenda) continue to contradict that claim.

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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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