Professors ask regents to suspend social media policy

More than 80 distinguished professors from Kansas University and Kansas State University have signed a letter asking the Kansas Board of Regents to suspend a recently passed social media policy while the regents review it.

The letter expressed “continued concern” among its signers while also stating that they “appreciate that the Board has invited representatives from the universities to review” it. They asked the regents to suspend the policy in the meantime.

“With the policy in place during this period of review, faculty and staff at Kansas universities would no longer have freedom of speech, nor the academic freedom necessary to do their jobs, nor tenure,” they write.

Philip Nel, a distinguished professor of English at K-State, helped write the letter and organize its signing and publication. The letter is set to run as an advertisement, paid for by the professors, in the Manhattan Mercury, Lawrence Journal-World and Topeka Capital-Journal.

Nel said he and others were concerned that the policy remains in place after the regents announced they would review it. “Potentially that’s asking all of us to just live under this policy for the foreseeable future,” he said. “So we thought ‘OK, this isn’t good.'”

Ann Cudd, KU vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies and a distinguished professor of philosophy, echoed Nel’s concern about the policy’s status. “The policy is in place right now. It’s not been put on hold, as far as I know,” she said. “What we consider a dangerous policy is in force.”

Given Cudd’s dual role as a faculty member and university administrator, the decision to sign took on some extra weight for her. “I know that given that I have both titles, there may be more implications to my signing. I did think hard about it, think carefully about it,” she said. “I think it’s an important stand to take.”

The regents passed the social media policy unanimously in December, partly as a response to KU journalism professor David Guth’s anti-NRA tweet in September, which ignited nationwide controversy.

The new policy authorizes the leaders of Kansas public universities to fire employees for social media posts that conflict with the best interests of the university or its ability to efficiently provide services, among other violations. Members of the regents have said they did not think the policy violated academic freedom or speech rights.

In response to widespread outcry from faculty and staff at Kansas universities, the regents announced they would revisit the policy and set up a work group made up of representatives from regents universities to review the policy and suggest changes.

The letter signers came from a wide range of academic fields, including those such as history, philosophy and sociology that often intersect with hot-button issues that many at the universities fear could become targets of the policy.

Lynn Davidman, a KU distinguished professor of sociology, often teaches about sensitive religious and social issues in her class. “I don’t use Twitter, I don’t use social media but nevertheless I’m concerned it could affect me in my teaching job,” she said. “The problem with a rule like this is it could unwind itself and apply itself to a vast range of utterances.”

Among the signers were also distinguished professors in the natural and applied sciences. Berl Oakley, a KU distinguished professor of molecular bioscience who signed the letter, said the hard sciences are also given to controversy when it comes to subjects like climate change and, specifically in Kansas, the Ogallala aquifer. “It (the social media policy) could interfere with academically related activities of people who do hard sciences,” he said. “Plus, there’s just the issue of being able to express your opinion.”

Professors who spoke to the Journal-World also said they wanted to use their positions as distinguished professors to protect staff and faculty and help persuade the regents to remove the policy. “My take on this is that this policy affects the most vulnerable faculty members among us,” Nel said. “The distinguished professors are potentially those who have the most power to speak out on this,” he said.

Breeze Richardson, a spokeswoman for the regents, said in an email that the regents could not comment because they had not read the letter. She noted that a workgroup has been established to “review this policy and offer recommendations in order to clarify the policy’s intent.” She added, “Continued dialogue is welcome and encouraged.”