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As vice chancellor of public affairs at Kansas University, Tim Caboni says that every negative story about the university "gives me heartburn."
Caboni spoke to KU's University Senate Thursday about the efforts of his office to consolidate operations, raise the university's profile in national media and increase message discipline across the institution.
KU public affairs and marketing have become more focused and increased their budgets under Caboni, and KU's research has been mentioned more frequently by national media. At the same time the university's relationship with the state has become strained at times, and KU has entered the national spotlight under less than ideal circumstances.
In recent months the university has found its way into headlines in local and national news outlets because of a social media policy passed by the Kansas Board of Regents in December, which many across the country have said violates academic freedom and free speech rights.
The policy, currently under review, gives university heads the authority to suspend and fire employees for improper social media posts.
Also in recent months, the anti-NRA Twitter post by KU journalism professor David Guth, and the university's response, brought attention to the university. It also drew the ire of some conservative lawmakers at a time when KU was already trying to smooth relations with the Legislature after a cut to the state's higher education budget.
As recently as last week, State Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, took shots at the university over the Guth incident and an email from Caboni to faculty and staff that drew notice from the American Association of University Professors.
The email asked that faculty and staff check in with Caboni's office before engaging lawmakers on behalf of the university. Caboni has said that it was standard fare for universities, which are required to report all official lobbying. At Thursday's meeting he said the memo "wasn't anything weird."
Asked about the light the social media threw on KU, Caboni said the "story can still be a positive" if KU takes the lead on the national conversation about speech and the new social media world. The upbeat note echoes recent statements by KU Provost Jeffrey Vitter and other administrators.
Answering a question from a faculty member, Caboni said the total budget for public affairs was roughly $2 million. The budget for the marketing department, which became an in-house advertising agency during Caboni's tenure, has grown from $60,000 to about $500,000, Caboni said.
Even that figure Caboni considers "too small" compared with the university's peer institutions, with some research universities shelling out millions on marketing alone. He attributed the rise in KU's applicant pool, from 11,000 applicants to 17,000, partly to the university's heightened marketing presence.