Kansas Board of Regents policy allows social media regulation

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The Kansas Board of Regents approved an amendment to the policy manual on Dec. 18 that outlines improper use of social media by University of Kansas faculty and staff.

The policy change comes after David Guth, a professor of journalism, tweeted a controversial message after the Washington Navy Yard shooting on Sept. 16. The University placed Guth on administrative leave and returned after a little over a month to continue doing administrative duties.

“There was concern around the susceptibility that allows damage to the universities,” Breeze Richardson, associate director of communications and government relations, said. “The Regents are hoping that guidance is provided.”

The new changes give the chancellor the right to punish, suspend or terminate faculty or staff based on improper social media use. “Improper use” is defined as disclosing confidential information, inciting violence or communicating through social media to accomplish an employee’s official duties.

Although the Regents designed the policy to regulate faculty and staff social media use by taking into account their right to free speech and their role as employees, many groups have fought against the policy, including the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which say the policy is a threat to academic freedom. Faculty members have also expressed concern and disagreement with the policy.

“National rankings will be adversely impacted as our peers across the country will expose their students to the latest topics using the most modern teaching tools, which quite often employ social media,” Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, associate professor of aerospace engineering and president of the AAUP Kansas Conference, said. “Given that the policy is still in force, accreditation will be challenged at best as many accrediting organizations have statements which insist upon academic freedom.”

The challenge to academic freedom could lead to issues with hiring new faculty and staff, as well as keeping current members. Faculty members also expressed concern that the policy will affect their lessons and change classroom curriculum, which could hurt students’ employability in the future.

“I hope that student and alumni organizations will come to realize what a grave threat this policy is to them and their fortunes and join us in resisting it,” Barrett-Gonzalez said.

The Regents said that the policy is not mandatory to implement; it only gives the University authority to act if necessary. Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little plans to approach the policy in the same manner as other policies, by collaborating with faculty and staff.

“With the working group of faculty and staff looking at revisions to the policy this semester, in the interim if there were to be an applicable situation, the Chancellor would involve faculty and staff governance in establishing a process to evaluate the situation and make recommendations about what actions, if any, should be taken,” Jack Martin, director of strategic communications for the Office of Public Affairs, said.

The Regents see the flexibility of the policy as its strength and has created a workgroup to make any necessary amendments. The workgroup will include Charles Epp, professor of public affairs, and Easan Selvan, associate director of Information Technology Services. They also welcome any recommendations for revisions to the policy, which can be submitted to the Governance Committee by April.

Gray-Little has already begun working with the Regents to revise the policy to address some of the faculty’s concerns. With the help of Deanell Reece Tacha, dean of law at Pepperdine University, Gray-Little has set up a dialogue for faculty members on March 25 titled “Data and Democracy: What is Free Speech in the Age of Social Media?” which she hopes will help shape the conversations surrounding the policy.

“The world’s communications culture is undergoing a dramatic shift in response to new technologies that are inspiring an evolution in human interaction, raising questions that range from etiquette to employment law,” Gray-Little said in a memo to faculty and staff. “Given the breadth of this issue, how KU responds to this challenge must involve the full participation of our faculty and of our staff. We look forward to working with you and your elected governance leaders to ensure our university’s ideals are upheld.”

  • Updated Jan. 21, 2014 at 11:28 am