Rebecca Schuman: The brave new world of academic censorship

12/26/2013 12:00 AM

12/24/2013 4:00 PM

Last week the Kansas Board of Regents voted unanimously to approve a new policy that gives each institution’s chief executive officer discretion to discipline or terminate any faculty or staff member who uses social media “improperly.” Many in the higher education world denounce this move as a sweeping attack on academic freedom, one prompted by a tenured journalism professor writing a single (admittedly awful) tweet about the National Rifle Association.

But should we be surprised, given the increasing resemblance of every public university in the United States to a Fortune 500 corporation, that professors and university staff are now being held to the same standards as private employees? I mean, look at Justine Sacco, the world’s least-knowledgeable AIDS commentator, or what’s-his-name from “Duck Dynasty.” If they can lose their jobs for saying something inflammatory, why shouldn’t university professors?

Well, in Kansas, it’s not just about being inflammatory – now, university employees can get fired for saying just about anything.

The event that likely precipitated the policy change was one incendiary tweet in the wake of yet another mass shooting. David W. Guth, a tenured journalism professor at the University of Kansas, unleashed a 140-character rant that insisted the “blood (was) on the hands of the #NRA” and that “Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”

After a highly predictable and not wholly undeserved reaction, Guth was temporarily suspended.

The new Kansas policy, though, makes good and sure that any similar blunder would result in its author being permanently fired – in this case for “inciting violence” (though most believe Guth was not being literal). And that’s by far the least objectionable of the policy’s clauses.

The regents seem to have milked the Guth incident for maximum possible censorship, and now the verboten also extends to statements that are “contrary to the best interests of the university” or anything that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.”

It is these two phrases’ ominously wide reach – and overt insistence on lockstep fealty – that are legitimately terrifying. What is in the best interests of your university? Perhaps it is firing a large chunk of its faculty but keeping its rock-climbing wall intact, and anyone who dares disagree in public will fear for his job.

Being contrary to “best interests of the university” could be anything – including, as scholars Amanda Murdie and Philip Nel have pointed out, just doing research on a subject the regents might find “deviant.” Meanwhile, any faculty member who dares speak out on behalf of underpaid adjuncts, or attempts to harness the power of social media to organize, certainly “impairs harmony among co-workers,” so you might not see any labor activism in Kansas universities anytime soon.

Hope you like your $22,000 a year, KU adjuncts, because now everyone has to keep his trap shut, or else.

But why, exactly, is this wrong? Why isn’t it within Kansas’ purview to fire those who use company equipment, are on company time or are otherwise using their company affiliation to say something that isn’t in the best interests of the company?

Because a university, especially a public university, is not a company. A public university does not have stockholders; it is not even allowed to make a profit. The “interests of the university,” to use the Kansas verbiage, are the creation, preservation and dissemination of knowledge – the free exchange of ideas.

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