Editorial: Academic rights

The importance and the limits of academic freedom are a topic of lively debate in Kansas these days.

Academic freedom is a bedrock principle for university faculty members, and yet, there seems to be some controversy in Kansas about exactly what is covered by that term.

Faculty members at state universities across Kansas are decrying a new Kansas Board of Regents social media policy that they say infringes on their academic freedom and right to free speech. At the same time, however, a Kansas University faculty member is using academic freedom to argue for less disclosure as he fights to shield his KU email communications from a Kansas Open Records request.

The new social media policy landed the Board of Regents on the list of the top 10 threats to free speech on campus, released this week by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. KU faculty members say the policy is so broad that it’s hard to define how it might be used against them. Among other things, the policy restricts speech that “impairs … harmony among co-workers.” The policy is so vague and open to interpretation that faculty are understandably concerned that it could be capriciously enforced. It has a chilling effect on faculty members’ ability to do their jobs and engage in the kind of free inquiry that is required in an academic community.

One of the most important aspects of academic freedom is the protection it provides to faculty members when they discuss radical ideas or theories. The point of expressing those viewpoints, however, is to promote examination and, yes, criticism by those who might disagree. That free marketplace of ideas is key to academic freedom.

A KU student group investigating Koch Industry ties to the KU School of Business wants to look at emails sent by Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics. As part of his efforts to fight the release of his emails, Hall argues the release would violate his academic freedom. Researchers, Hall said in a Journal-World column, should be allowed “to correspond broadly with experts with diverse viewpoints without fearing their thoughts will be misconstrued, published and used against them in order to silence them.”

Academic freedom protects the right of faculty members to espouse unpopular opinions without fearing for their jobs, but it doesn’t shield them from criticism or even ridicule. Having their ideas discussed or even misconstrued is part of the process that helps researchers refine their thinking and further their work. When those ideas are expressed on a public university email account, what right does the public have to examine them?

In Hall’s case, that’s a matter that the courts will decide. On the social media issue, state universities in Kansas are working on policies that provide some due process for faculty members suspected of violating the regents’ policy. Academic freedom protects faculty members in a way that is essential, but not absolute. Drawing that line and protecting their academic integrity is — and should be — a matter of no small concern to Kansas universities hoping to retain and attract top faculty members.