Your turn: Board of Regents can learn from social media work group

In the months since the Kansas Board of Regents passed their widely derided social media policy, many have wondered why they would create a policy so at odds with higher education. One answer is that the regents are political appointees, all but one of whom lack professional expertise in higher education. (Four of the nine are lawyers.)

But lack of formal qualifications need not impede a person’s ability to do a job well. Academics routinely take on projects that they did not study in graduate school. For example, I have never taken a course on biography. When I decided to write one, I learned from the experts — I talked to biographers, read books on how to write biography, read biographies.

Similarly, deficits in the Kansas Board of Regents’ knowledge need not impair its leadership. In forming the workgroup to revise their social media policy, the regents wisely sought the advice of those who work in higher education and who understand, for example, that the free and open exchange of ideas is at the core of what universities do.

If the regents follow the advice they’ve solicited, Kansas has a rare opportunity to be nationally recognized for doing something thoughtful, and the Board of Regents could take credit for starting this conversation. Were they to adopt the work group’s revised social media policy, the regents could offer a model for other colleges and universities around the nation.

Unlike the board’s current policy, the revised policy is advisory rather than punitive, offering guidance for use rather than sanctions for abuse. Unlike the current policy, the workgroup’s revision is in accord with the Higher Learning Commission’s standards for accreditation, which include a commitment “to freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.” Unlike the current policy, the work group’s version affirms academic freedom.

A university is not merely a credentialing factory. It is students, staff and faculty embarking upon a quest for knowledge. We develop that knowledge by arguing over ideas, testing them, refining them. Unfettered and open debate helps us discover which ideas to pursue, and which ones to discard. The current policy’s casual disregard for academic freedom renders it incompatible with the goals of higher education, and the new policy’s understanding of academic freedom’s necessity makes it an effective one.

Should the regents adopt the recommendations of the work group they created, they would not only be affirming academic freedom, but modeling it. Just as a scholar sends out an article to be reviewed by experts in the field, so the regents have sent out a policy to be reviewed by the work group. As the most generous experts do, the work group has responded carefully and thoughtfully, not just highlighting the policy’s many flaws, but finding ways to fix them.

Defending the current policy, the regents frequently assure us that it’s legal — an understandable answer, given that the policy’s two co-authors (Fred Logan and Tim Emert) are lawyers. However, and as the work group’s revised policy shows, “Is this legal?” is not the only question to ask. Many things are legal that are neither ethical nor effective. A better question would be “Is this good for higher education in Kansas?” The current policy is not. The revised policy is.

Let us hope that the regents learn from the counsel they’ve sought.