The David Guth of Wisconsin
Some of you on the hill might remember a little incident last September involving a Kansas University journalism professor, a politically charged sentiment about the Navy Yard shootings in Washington, D.C., and a social media platform that disseminates statements of 140 characters or less.
I’m talking about David Guth, who was placed on administrative leave last fall by the KU administration after an anti-NRA tweet sparked outrage among conservatives and gun rights supporters.
Guth put KU and the journalism school in the national spotlight for reasons both entities would probably like to forget. But Guth wasn’t alone among college professors who have come under fire for making politicized statements in an age of rapid-fire social media communication.
This week the Chronicle of Higher Education detailed the story of Rachel Slocum, an assistant professor of geography with the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.
Like Guth, Slocum referenced current events in digital communication, only in this case the medium was email and it was directed at her students.
When last fall’s government shutdown stalled a class assignment, which depended on government data from websites that were on hold with the shutdown, Slocum made an overt reference to the politics around the shutdown.
According to the Chronicle, Slocum wrote to her class in an email:
Some of the data gathering assignment
will be impossible to complete until
the Republican/Tea Party controlled
House of Representatives agrees to
fund the government… [the rest of the
project] will have to wait until
Congress decides we actually need a
A student in Slocum’s class, who was then interning at the anti-tax advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform and who had a different view on the politics behind the shutdown, posted a picture of the email on Twitter with the message: “Can’t do my homework for class; govt. shutdown. So my prof. blames Republicans in an e-mail blast…”
The fallout was swift and harrowing for Slocum and the university, much as it was for Guth and KU.
Among the similarities between the Slocum and Guth situations: Both stories were picked up by the college media site Campus Reform, which is affiliated with the Leadership Institute and other conservative outlets.
Guth, Slocum and administrators at their respective universities received vitriolic messages from strangers outside the university. Guth even received death threats.
Administrators in both cases publicly denounced the faculty members under fire.
Some called for Slocum to be fired. Same holds for Guth, and some state legislators joined in the demands for his job. Both universities saw legislative funding come under threat.
And, of course, both stories spread like wildfire through social media.
The speed with which news travels through social media strikes fear into the heart of university officials. In response, some universities and state boards are looking to somehow contain social media wildfires, as another Chronicle article points out.
That list includes Kansas. If it weren’t for David Guth’s tweet, the Kansas Board of Regents would probably never have introduced the controversial new social media policy giving university CEOs the power to fire employees over “improper” social media use.
That policy has gained at least as much notoriety as Guth’s tweet. It sparked dismay and outrage among Kansas university employees and has brought condemnation from national groups and newspaper editorial pages around the state. Critics say the policy restricts academic freedom and free speech.
(Shortly after passing the policy, the regents said they would take a second look at it in response to the outcry. The work group tasked by the regents with reviewing it recently approved a rewrite that would take an advisory, rather than disciplinary, role. Campuses have largely lauded the proposed draft so far.)
The regents, as KU Provost Jeff Vitter has said, were trying to protect universities from political backlashes and funding risks such as that which followed the Guth imbroglio. In the process the regents found themselves at the center of a national debate over free speech in higher education.
Universities have evolved in part to be institutions of democratic instruction and the free debate of ideas. The invention of tenure was meant to shield university scholars from political reprisals by people who don’t like their ideas or ways of expressing them.
It’s understandable that taxpayers and tuition payers would want to limit classroom conversations to the assignment at hand, and to keep hot-button politics out of education. At the same time, universities are the places where many learn to think, talk and write critically about political, social, philosophical, scientific and commercial ideas for the first time.
Trying to keep politics out of the classroom, or social media, for education’s sake might ultimately be self-defeating.