Status and fate of social media policy unclear at Kansas universities

After the Kansas Board of Regents announced Tuesday that they would review a recently approved social media policy, the policy’s fate and status remain uncertain.

But as it’s currently written, the policy could have different effects on different groups of workers at universities depending on their roles and whether they have tenure.

In December the regents unanimously passed the policy, which allows the leaders of Kansas public universities to fire employees for social media posts that, among other things, conflict with the university’s best interests.

In response to widespread outcry that the policy violated free speech rights and academic freedom, the regents announced they would take a second look. A work group composed of university employees chosen by the regents will review the policy and report back to the regents in April.

For now, the policy remains in the Regents policy manual as it was originally written. Whether it’s enforceable at KU and other universities remains in question. Richard Levy, a KU distinguished professor of law, said the university might need to develop its own policy that “specified the permissible and impermissible uses of social media” before it can take action, he said.

Asked what she would do if a relevant situation arose, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said, “If we had the need, we would use a procedure that would involve faculty and staff input to address any situation that occurred, and we have not done that.”

Who is most vulnerable

As the policy is currently written, different groups at the university could fare differently under it. Tenured faculty might have special protections, though that is not clear.

Traditionally, tenure is meant to protect faculty from political reprisal for their ideas. At KU tenured professors are protected from dismissal except in limited cases of violations of law, university policy or professional ethics.

Levy pointed to different potential scenarios, one where the new social media policy would be subject to existing policies on tenure, and one where university officials could interpret the social media policy as “a new ground for revocation of tenure,” Levy said.

While tenured faculty may or may not have some shield against the policy in its current form, that still leaves thousands of non-faculty staff members across the state without tenure protections. Bill Tuttle, a KU professor emeritus in American Studies, said in a December interview, “I think staff are really vulnerable.”

As with faculty, many KU staff members reacted with alarm when learning about the social media policy. Mike Krings, a KU public affairs officer and president of the Unclassified Senate, a governance body that represents KU employees, said he was met with “a flood of emails and calls” after his peers heard of the policy. As with faculty who’ve voiced concern, they worried about the policy’s vagueness and wondered how the it would affect them, Krings said.

Staff members who work in communications for the university, which often involves social media, also voiced concern about how the policy would apply to them.

David Day, communications manager for KU Information Technology, said most staff members he knows understand that when they post on Twitter or Facebook on behalf of the university, they have a responsibility to represent the university’s interests. “But the concerns I’ve heard are mostly about things they may say or do on their own personal accounts,” Day said.

Since the regents announced they would review the policy, Krings is more optimistic. “It shows that they’re open to input and maybe they realize that, OK, maybe this isn’t the best language for a policy,” he said.