Faculty leaders say KU’s proposed conduct guidelines are overly vague, were developed without employees’ input

photo by: Chris Conde

Strong Hall on the University of Kansas campus is shown on Sept. 13, 2018.

University of Kansas faculty leaders say a proposed set of employee conduct guidelines was developed without their input and is so vague that it could threaten their free expression rights.

The guidelines seek to outline KU’s core institutional values for its employees — such as integrity, professional civility, and multicultural and intellectual diversity. They also provide a list of “unacceptable behaviors,” including “abuse of position or power,” “offensive comments” and “(a) pattern of verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs, microaggressions, or insults,” among others.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the KU Senate Executive Committee, KU Faculty Senate President Shawn Leigh Alexander said the guidelines were dangerously vague.

While the document lists a few problematic behaviors, it doesn’t clearly define them, he said — and that could result in overly broad readings that might ultimately infringe on academic freedoms or free expression rights.

Other faculty members at the meeting also said the language was legally weak and could open the university up to lawsuits.

“While we see the necessity of it, we’re a little worried of the form it’s in,” Alexander said. “We should be careful about rushing (through) something so broad.”

The guidelines have not yet been enacted. A copy of the guidelines obtained by the Journal-World did not specify what process they would have to go through or whom they would have to be approved by.

It’s also unclear from the document how the guidelines, if enacted, would be enforced. A section of the document lists several ways to report violations — including discussing the violation with a dean or department head or going to the university’s human resources department or Ombuds Office. However, it doesn’t specify what, if anything, would happen to people who violate the guidelines.

In addition, Alexander and some of his fellow faculty leaders have concerns with the way the guidelines were drafted.

The guidelines were drawn up in December by the KU Ombuds Office without any input from the faculty members and employees they would affect, Alexander said. It was only after the university’s winter break that they started circulating among various KU governance committees for review, he said.

“We were not brought into the discussion. There was no faculty member on the committee,” he said. “And that was a major concern.”

Suzanne Valdez, the president of KU’s University Senate and a member of the law school faculty, said Tuesday that members of the University Senate also were not involved in discussions on the proposed guidelines.

“We didn’t have anyone there to be on (the) committee, and we ended up with these standards, but there was no involvement in terms of feedback,” she said. “The issue of not being at the table may cause people to wonder about that and about the process.”

The Senate Executive Committee ultimately decided Tuesday to ask the Ombuds Office to provide clarifications on how the guidelines would be enacted and if there would be associated disciplinary procedures should an employee violate the guidelines. It asked for those clarifications to be made before the next Senate Executive Committee meeting on March 3.

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