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Regents ponder revised policy

By Bethany Knipp

The Kansas Board of Regents’ social media policy was revised by its governance committee Wednesday morning — but some controversial disciplinary language remained intact.

A work group consisting of professors from across the state proposed revisions emphasizing academic freedom to the regents, and the proposals then were discussed in committee.

The revisions come after heated opposition to the current policy adopted in December, which stated that university employees could be subject to disciplinary action — including termination — should faculty “make improper use of social media” that is “contrary to the best interests of the university.” That disciplinary languageremains in the revised proposal.

Proposed changes emphasize academic freedom from institutional censorship or discipline for speech permissible by law, and consistent with First Amendment protections.

“There was agreement that the language in our existing policy is nothing more than a recitation of language from existing case law,” regents chair Fred Logan said.

He said private speech would not be curtailed by the current language.

“I would say that the chances of the policy being violated are very slim,” Logan said. “If somebody wants to criticize the university president, they’re certainly free to do that.”

Logan said the only aspect of the work group’s revisions the board did not adopt was a suggestion for the board to direct universities to come up with social media guidelines.

Logan said universities already have the authority to do that.

Some of the other changes include the incorporation of statements from the American Association of University Professors that say when employees speak or write as citizens, they should be free from censorship or discipline — but that their special position in the community imposes some obligations.

Those obligations include being accurate and respectful, and that an effort should be made to state that their views are their own.

Logan said the committee also approved of changing the title of the policy from “Improper Use of Social Media” to “Use of Social Media by Faculty and Staff.” 

Kansas State English professor Philip Nel was one of 80 distinguished professors from K-State, the University of Kansas, KU Medical Center and Wichita State University who signed a letter to the board encouraging the adoption of the revisions.

“It ensures academic freedom but it also says, hey, we should be responsible as well,” Nel said about the work group’s proposed revisions.

When Nel heard that the punitive clauses of the policy would be kept, he said in an email, “The Board of Regents appear to be treating the work group’s thoughtful revision as a garnish to the board’s original turd sandwich.” 

He said the board lacked an understanding of the damage the disciplinary language could do.

“I think the Board of Regents holds educators in contempt. They haven’t actually changed the policy at all. They really don’t know what’s at stake,” he said.

The next step is for a draft of the revised policy to go to the full Board of Regents at its next meeting in May.

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