In December, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy that gave CEOs and presidents of state universities the ability “to suspend, dismiss or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.”
The policy has drawn attention from both the media and public, and has led to concern that the board may be limiting university employees’ First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech.
The outcry prompted the board’s president and CEO, Andy Tompkins, to establish a social media policy work group to evaluate and make revision recommendations for the policy.
“Because of concerns raised, the work group was called,” said Breeze Richardson, associate director of communications and government relations for the board. “And the hope is that clarity can be given to what the policy says.”
Richardson said each university is represented in the work group by two representatives. The University of Kansas Medical Center is also represented by a single member. Richardson said members were chosen by Tompkins after receiving recommendations from each university head. Richardson said the intention was to make the group diverse.
“He selected classified staff, unclassified staff and faculty to ensure that there was a range of participation from the names he was given by the presidents and chancellor,” Richardson said.
The K-State representatives are Julia Keen, president of K-State’s Faculty Senate and associate professor in architectural engineering and construction science, and Jeff Morris, vice president of communications and marketing. Both were unavailable for comment.
Kevin Johnson, general counsel for Emporia State University and co-chair of the social media work group, said one element of the group’s diversity came from the request that each president or chancellor submit at least one faculty member and one non-faculty member for consideration. Johnson, in his role as general counsel, was considered a non-faculty member.
“They asked each university president, and the chancellor in KU’s case, to recommend one faculty member and one non-faculty member – you know, staff member – for the universities,” Johnson said. “They did, and so as a result we have 13 people on the committee, which we hope will be a good luck number for us.”
The committee has been formed to create recommendations, Richardson said. The work group does not have any enforceable authority on its own. However, Richardson said the creation of the committee shows that the board wants to hear feedback from those the policy applies to.
Richardson said the work group has been given a three-part mission by the board. It includes reviewing the board’s policy while still abiding by it, taking into account the concerns that have been expressed, and finally, recommending revisions to the board.
One of the challenges Richardson said she and the board have faced has been the portrayal of the policy in the mainstream media.
“There was nothing put in this policy that isn’t law today,” Richardson said. “It’s been a challenge to have, what has in some cases, felt like references to the policy that have been out of context and press, especially live media, like talk-show type press. It doesn’t seem like the people that are commenting on the policy have actually read it.”
Richardson said the board feels that university employees’ freedom of speech is upheld, and that the legal advisers to the board and the Kansas attorney general both agree that the policy doesn’t violate existing law.
“If clarity can be offered, I think the regents are very interested in that,” Richardson said. “They know what their intention was, and to whatever degree that’s not clear in how the policy is worded now. I think they’re very invested in seeing what this board can suggest.”
An example of this “lack of clarity” is the issue of hiring and firing authority over faculty, Richardson said.
“For example, to suggest that the Board of Regents would fire someone, when the Board of Regents do not have hiring and firing power over faculty,” Richardson said. “All day-to-day operations are at the discretion of the chancellor or president of that institution.”
Johnson said the group has two real roles in helping to shape the policy.
“The ultimate goal is to come up with a social media policy to recommend to the Board of Regents, one that would revise the current one and/or replace it, depending on how you want to word it,” Johnson said. “That’s one of our roles. The second one is to do it through a process that is completely transparent and that has active participation among people who will be under the policy, which is everybody, all faculty and staff at all the universities.”
Both Richardson and Johnson said the final recommendation of the social media work group is due on April 16. Johnson said the group plans to have a preliminary policy ready by March 12.
“On that date, or sooner if we can do it sooner, we’re then going to essentially make it available for review and comment to every faculty member and staff member and student at the six regents universities, as well as its med center,” Johnson said.
Johnson said once that happens, people affected by the revised policy will have had time to see and comment on it. The group will be able to consider all of the comments before submitting the final policy to the board. Even students, who are not directly affected by the policy, will be able to comment.
“Even though students aren’t directly under the policy, we felt that students are affected by it because it can affect communications between students and faculty,” Johnson said. “Therefore, they are at least indirectly affected and we felt that they are certainly stakeholders in all of this.”