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Kansas Faculty Change Curriculum As New Social Media Policy Kicks In

When the Kansas Board of Regents announced a new, broad policy on social media for faculty and staff in mid-December, it didn’t take long to hear the reaction.

That is the nature, after all, of Facebook and Twitter.

“Unbelievably broad and vague set of policies,” Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor, wrote in a Facebook post. “Perfect example of using a nuclear weapon to destroy a gnat of a pseudo problem.”

Loomis’ comments were similar to many faculty and staff who were shocked at the Regents’ decision to place direct limits on what employees can publically say.

The new policy was triggered when David Guth, a KU associate journalism professor, passionately reacted to news in September that a lone gunman had killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard.

"The blood is on the hands of the #NRA,” Guth wrote. “Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you.”

Reaction to Guth’s Tweet was also fast – and fierce. His comments went viral and generated national attention. Guth was placed on administrative leave. He’s currently on a semester sabbatical in western Kansas. He declined comment for this story, but still speaks out on his blog.

Saying the Kansas system had no social media policy, the Board of Regents on Dec. 18 enacted one that barred “improper” use of social media, including a prohibition on anything that would be “contrary to the best interest of the university.” The plan also banned directly inciting violence, disclosing confidential student information, other protected data and confidential research data.

Even as civil libertarians and academia denounced the policy, conservatives commended it, saying there needed to be parameters. Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, said Guth’s comment initially outraged him, though he now knows it was done in the heat of the moment. But what it really showed was the need for a policy, he said.

“With clear guidelines coming down from the top that says ‘Look, you have freedom of speech, but you can’t go this far,’” he said. “I think having a clear understanding between faculty and the Board of Regents on what’s acceptable and what’s not, I think is better for everyone involved.”

Fred Logan, chair of the Board of Regents, turned down a request for comment, saying the policy was “old news.” But last week the board – in a bit of a backslide -- named a working group to review the policy, with a decision expected in April.

The regents are scared of Kansas lawmakers, Loomis said, because they hold the university’s purse strings.

“All of this has to be taken into account in the context of a very, very conservative Kansas Legislature that has very little sympathy, I think, for higher education,” he said.

Critics say the broad nature of the guidelines would offer administrators enormous latitude in firing people – even those with tenure. Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a KU associate professor of aerospace engineering, is head of the local conference of American Association of University Professors, just one of several national groups who have denounced the policy.

Barrett-Gonzalez said some professors have changed their lesson plans to drop any controversial subjects and to stop using social media.

“I’ve gotten a lot of emails and phone calls and hallway discussions with people who use the latest technology, as I do, to communicate with students,” he said. “I use Facebook. I use YouTube. I post my lectures on YouTube. It’s very, very worrisome”

Barrett-Gonzalez and others are also worried that the policy will deter Kansas universities from hiring the best faculty and that good staff will be cherry-picked by other schools.  

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said Guth was briefly suspended. In fact, he was placed on administrative leave. 

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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