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Posts tagged with Kansas Board Of Regents

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 government."

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.

Reply 1 comment from Betty Bartholomew

KU students call on regents to suspend social media policy

Kansas University students have joined in the call for the Kansas Board of Regents to suspend a social media policy passed in December.

The KU Student Senate passed a resolution this week urging the regents to ax the policy while a regents-created work group reviews it and recommends revisions.

Garrett Farlow, a KU freshman in journalism, was one of the primary authors of the resolution, which states the social media policy "inhibits free speech of faculty and staff, depriving them of the academic and personal freedoms necessary to effectively educate students."

Farlow said he was concerned that the policy could inhibit faculty members who engage with peers and students on social media. "Although the policy is directly targeted at faculty and professors, it obviously affects students," he said.

The policy allows university heads to suspend and fire employees for social media posts that conflict with the best interest of the university or its ability to perform services, among other violations.

After passing the policy unanimously in December, the regents announced they would review it in response to widespread criticism that it was too broad and could restrain free speech.

The regents established a work group of faculty and staff from state universities to study the policy and make recommendations to the board by April. But faculty and staff groups have repeatedly asked the regents to suspend the policy until the work group makes its findings. Yesterday the regents pushed back against those calls.

Farlow said the issue hasn't gotten much attention from students largely because they don't follow media accounts as closely as faculty and staff. But Farlow is trying to make it an issue with students, starting with last night's resolution.

"The more people that know about this, the more impact that we can have," he said. "The First Amendment is very near and dear to my heart."

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Taking to social media to test the social media policy

Almost immediately after the Kansas Board of Regents passed a new policy on improper social media use in December, people across the state and country took to social media to express their views.

They tweeted. They Facebooked. They started email chains.

A Facebook group called "Kansas Universities Faculty & Staff Against Regents' Speech Policy" sprang up the next day. As of now, it has 1,765 likes.

Now some critics of the policy are using social media to test its reach.

The regents passed the policy unanimously in December. It allows presidents of regents universities to discipline, up to firing, employees that make posts on social media against the best interests of the universities or that interfere with their operations, among other violations.

The regents have said they are open to revising the policy and have set up a work group to review it and make recommendations. In the meantime, with the policy as written still in place, several groups of faculty and staff members have called for the suspension of the social media policy while under review.

This week Phil Nel, a distinguished professor of English at Kansas State University and vocal critic of the policy, began what he called "an experiment in civil disobedience."

Using the Twitter hashtag "#ksspeech," Nel encouraged his followers and colleagues to "tweet anything you like" to find out just what you can and can't say on social media if you're an employee of the university. As Nel writes on his blog Nine Kinds of Pie:

So, friends, Kansans, and allies of freedom of speech everywhere, join me in a little experiment in civil disobedience. If you’re on Twitter, tweet something and tag it #ksspeech — that’s “ks” (the postal abbreviation for Kansas) plus the word “speech.”  If there’s still room, tag @ksregents as well. What should you tweet? Anything you like. A quotation. A recipe. A hypothesis. An observation. A pun. Something else.

I will be tweeting one such statement each day until the Kansas Board of Regents rescinds its unconstitutional social media policy. But I don’t see why I should have all the fun. Join me!

A sampling of the tweets so far:

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Sorting out the legal issues of the regents’ social media policy

Last week the Kansas Board of Regents announced the names of a work group created to review the social media policy that the board approved last month. The policy, for those returning to campus from holiday hibernation, allows presidents of Kansas public universities to discipline, up to firing, employees for social media posts that conflict with the best interests of the university or its ability to provide services.

That the regents agreed to review the policy has done little to quiet those who have vocally opposed it. With the work group set to report back to the regents in April, that leaves at least four months, and quite possibly more, for it to sit in the regents' policy book in its original wording.

Distinguished professors from Kansas State University and Kansas University have asked the regents to suspend the policy while under review. Last week the faculty senate presidents of regents universities also asked the regents to suspend the policy.

The regents refused. Regents chairman Fred Logan explained their position, saying they had passed the new rules on social media use "in good faith."

Not everyone agrees. Philip Nel, a K-State distinguished professor of English, and a vocal critic of the policy who has helped organize multiple faculty responses to it, wrote in a recent blog post that he originally thought the policy "must have been a mistake." He writes:

Unlike previous Boards, this one had — for instance — been asking the Kansas Legislature to fund the state universities in Kansas. Adopting a social media policy that suspended freedom of speech and (in effect) eradicated tenure was surely because the hastily passed proposal was ill-considered.

His thinking has changed, though.

Before voting on its new social media policy, the Kansas Board of Regents ran it by the Kansas attorney general's office to make sure it stood on solid legal and constitutional ground. Confident in its constitutionality, the regents passed the policy unanimously in December.

The fact that the regents took the policy to the attorney general Nel takes as evidence that the policy was not a blunder or hastily crafted and little-thought-upon blip:

The policy is not a mistake, but a carefully executed plan to muzzle free speech. This is why the Board passed the policy as faculty and staff were grading exams and preparing to leave town (indeed, many had already left town). This is why, though the policy has been panned with near unanimity from both within and beyond Kansas, the Board is not backing down.

Logan said last week that he believed that the policy is a re-statement of existing law. But whether the policy could survive a legal challenge in court is an open question.

The constitutional issues involved are fairly nuanced and complicated. Although I suppose if these things were simple and straightforward, we wouldn't need courts or lawyers. In a conversation earlier this month with Rick Levy, a distinguished professor of law at KU, pointed to parts of the policy that could potentially be challenged on legal and constitutional grounds.

Levy, who is always careful when talking about the policy to point out that he is not expressing any opinion one way or the other, said, "Normally the state cannot discriminate or take action against speakers based on the contents of their speech." That's a core First Amendment protection. But there are some exceptions to it. One being speech that is, as Levy explains, "directed toward inciting imminent unlawful" behavior.

That provision to free speech comes with standards. Such speech must be likely to provoke unlawful conduct, and the speaker must have intended for the speech to incite unlawful behavior, Levy said. (Without those standards you'd get a lot of perverse legal and social outcomes. Imagine J.D. Salinger being on the hook for Mark David Chapman's murder of John Lennon because of Catcher in the Rye.)

The regents seemed to address speech inciting illegal behavior in their social media policy. Included in the types of improper social media are any posts that "directly incites violence or other immediate breach of the peace." But Levy said this "doesn't match the standard directly. It may be broader or permit action under broader grounds" because it "does not clearly require intent or likeliness" in its wording.

Another potential issue relates to the "void for vagueness" doctrine in constitutional due process. Under the doctrine people are "entitled to fair notice of whether your conduct is valid or not," Levy says.

The regents policy allows university heads to punish employees for any social media post 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, 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."

Under a constitutional challenge to the policy, the regents would have to prove this gives university personnel adequate information about what kinds of speech would cause them to be disciplined or fired, Levy said.

Finally, there's the question of whether faculty and employees at a university are subject to the same legal precedents under free speech law as other public employees. The regents policy appears to apply principles that came out of the Gracetti v. Ceballos Supreme Court decision, in which the court decided that when employees make statements "pursuant to their official duties" (very similar language can be found in the regents policy), they are not engaged in civic speech protected by the First Amendment.

Levy said that, because of language in the court opinion, lower courts have typically ruled that those principles don't apply to universities, where teaching and scholarship have a unique function among other government activities.

Head spinning yet? All this of course could be sorted out by regents once the work group reports back. If not, there's a chance it could go to court to be sorted out.

If you have your own legal opinions on the matter or, better yet, KU news tips, send them along to bunglesbee@ljworld.com.

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Tenure and post-tenure: discussions and rumblings

Earlier this week we covered the discussion on the hill about post-tenure review for faculty. It's an ongoing one at KU. Nearly a year has passed since the Board of Regents issued its initial directive for state universities to develop a review policy.

One of the main focuses in KU discussions on the current review policy draft doesn't relate to the policy itself but rather its ultimate destination. As it's been conceived, the review policy would be university-wide, in the KU Provost's Policy Library. It might sound like parliamentary minutia, but some think that leaving the policy in the policy library, outside the oversight of the KU Faculty Senate, could allow the policy to be changed without faculty knowledge or input.

In its most recent meeting, the Faculty Senate implored the administration to move the policy to the Faculty Senate’s own book of regulations. The body unanimously passed a resolution stating: “In accordance with the pledge to collaborate in good faith found in the Statement of Principles on Post-Tenure Review and in recognition of the importance of continuing KU’s tradition of meaningful shared governance, it is the sense of the University of Kansas Faculty Senate that the proper location of any forthcoming Post Tenure Review policy is the Faculty Senate Rules and Regulations.”

KU Vice Provost for Faculty Development Mary Lee Hummert said in an email that the Provost's office recently received the Senate statement. With KU Provost Jeff Vitter meeting regularly with faculty governance members, Hummert said, "there will be opportunities for him to discuss this topic with them."

An even greater contingent of faculty has voiced concerns that the current draft, as written, is too complicated. The members of the draft committee said they heard faculty concerns on the issue and are working to simplify the policy.

Much of the policy's complexity could have something to do with a central tension faced by the draft committee between giving departments flexibility and creating a university-wide standard that meets the principles of the Regents mandate and the Provost's charge.

The policy draft acknowledges that more innovative research takes time and carries a higher risk of failure than more conventional research. Also, departments have different standards and measures of success. James Carothers, an English professor and member of the Senate, pointed out that there is far less external funding available for research in English as a discipline than there is for the physical and applied sciences. Where those departments might make grant awards a part of faculty evaluation, "That would be inappropriate for us," Carothers said.

While many KU faculty members have entered the discussion around the reviews with considerable passion, the reaction will likely seem tame by comparison should the legislature move to change the nature of tenure. So far we at Heard on the Hill have only heard about rumblings from Topeka on changing tenure, but we'll keep a close eye on it.

In the meantime, send your own rumblings and KU news to bunglesbee@ljworld.com.

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Breaking down the private funds that pay the KU chancellor’s salary

If the comments on this story and the interactions with the @LJW_KU Twitter account last week are any indication, many of you had some thoughts and feelings about last week's Kansas Board of Regents vote to award a pay increase to KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, along with the chief executives at the state's other public universities.

One important detail, amid declining state funding at KU, is that the $60,000 raise for Gray-Little will come entirely from private funds. That means the privately paid portion of the chancellor's salary is approaching the state fund-paid portion: About $272,000 will now came from state funds, with about $221,000 coming from private funds.

That left me with a question: What are those "private funds," exactly?

Well, they come from the KU Endowment Association, but it's a little more complicated than that.

First, some history. KU chancellors' salaries consisted entirely of state funds until 10 years ago, in 2003, when Chancellor Robert Hemenway began to receive an additional $50,000 per year thanks to a $1 million donation from a KU graduate. That donor, Charley Oswald, of Edina, Minn., also donated $1 million each to Kansas State and Wichita State universities.

Each donation created a professorship fund — like ones used to pay additional salary for distinguished professors — to bolster the salary of each university's chief executive.

Ten years later, that fund at KU provides about $70,000 of the chancellor's salary, said KU Endowment President Dale Seuferling. The rest of her salary — and all of the $60,000 increase the Regents approved last week — comes from the Endowment's Greater KU Fund, to which donors can make unrestricted gifts "to advance the university for a variety of purposes," Seuferling said.

A big majority of gifts to the Endowment come with specific instructions for their use, but some donors give money that the Endowment can use for any purpose at KU, with the approval of the Executive Committee of its Board of Trustees. Those go into the Greater KU Fund.

For the current fiscal year, which ends a week from today, donors have made 2,921 unrestricted gifts to the Endowment totaling about $2.3 million (an average of $800 per gift), according to numbers that Seuferling shared. The totals for restricted gifts are much higher: 80,576 gifts that add up to about $128.7 million, with an average gift of about $1,600.

For the coming year, around $151,000 of the chancellor's salary will come from the unrestricted fund. Over time, Seuferling said, the Regents have asked for privately funded increases to the chancellor's salary that exceed the amount available each year from the fund established by Oswald's donation. Those increases require approval from the Endowment's Executive Committee.

So, in sum, here's how the chancellor's salary will break down, roughly: $272,000 from state funds; $70,000 from the Endowment fund created to pay some of the chancellor's salary; and $151,000 from the Endowment's unrestricted fund.

Gray-Little's new base salary of $492,650, by the way, would rank 34th among public university leaders in the most recent survey on that subject published by the Chronicle of Higher Education (though that survey was for the 2012 fiscal year, and she'll make that salary in the 2014 fiscal year, so obviously other leaders' pay may have increased since then, as well). Her then-base pay of about $429,000 ranked 60th in the survey for that year. (Overall, she was the 86th highest-paid executive on the list, but that includes retirement and severance payouts, among other factors.)

The Regents said the raises for Gray-Little and the other leaders were designed to make their pay more competitive nationally, and this one would appear to do that.

I'm sorry if you didn't expect your Monday to include so much math. I'll stop throwing so many numbers at you, but only if you send me a KU news tip to divert my attention. Send 'em to merickson@ljworld.com.

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