Friday, May 16, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Kansas

Photo via Dain Nielsen
This past winter, during a three-week long trip to my hometown in Lawrence, Kansas, I carved out some time to meet and have coffee with my advisor.  Only a few weeks previous I passed my qualifying exam to become ABD in History, and she wanted to go over a few of the finer points related to actually writing a dissertation, the task that loomed large with my oral trial by fire now quickly fading.  We spoke on chapter writing, on motivation, on the need to stay focused- and after these topics were exhausted our talk moved on to the more mundane aspects of life; daily chores, grading, and, most importantly, the grind of dealing with a Board of Regents in Kansas that has proved, time and time again, to possess antipathy, if not outright animosity, towards teachers and staff at the various institutions of higher learning under their purview.

I should add this last jab at the Board of Regents are both my words and my interpretation, not hers, and the reason for such a clarification is thus; it is now possible for any employee at an institution governed by the Kansas Board of Regents to be fired if their use of social media is deemed "contrary to the best interests of the university."

Let that sink in for a second- "contrary to the best interests of the university."

It would not be a gross mischaracterization to call this the most draconian social media policy ever adopted by a governing institution of higher education.  Its bureaucratic vagueness is a prime example of the adjectival descriptor 'byzantine', and the simplicity of the statement belies the vast range of interpretations allowed.  What exactly constitutes the best interests of the university?  Who decides what this best interest entails?  Perhaps most importantly, is it possible to reconcile hallowed notions of 'academic freedom' with such an interest?  The Board of Regents would have you believe the two can coexist, but anyone with such a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head would beg to differ.

Bob Dylan famously remarked in his song, 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)', that "if my thought dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in the guillotine."  With the adoption of this policy the Kansas Board of Regents moved one step closer towards actualizing Dylan's eloquently articulated fear.  Their reasoning, I suppose, is that if you can't actually see the thought-dreams of staff and teachers alike then the next best thing is to sharply punish those dreams when they take form in social media.  A public execution would send as subtle a message as this policy, but given that the Board of Regents does not yet possess the power of capital punishment such measures, to them no doubt, seem reasonable and entirely appropriate.

I wonder what else seems reasonable and entirely appropriate?  It seems reasonable and entirely appropriate to assume that anyone with academic talent, even in this harsh employment climate, will think twice about accepting a position at an institution of higher learning in Kansas.  It seems reasonable and entirely appropriate that such a policy flies in the face of pedagogical literature suggesting that professors embrace social media as a way to better connect with their students.  It seems reasonable and entirely appropriate to recognize that this policy is just another step towards nullifying tenure.

It also seems reasonable and entirely appropriate to recognize that this policy makes Kansas the laughingstock of the nation.  Again.  As if this state that was once the focal point of progressivism really needed another reminder that those days are long gone.

All is not lost, however.  Philip Nel, at his blog 'Nine Kinds of Pie', articulates measured responses those working at such institutions can take to fight this policy.  Several other incensed academics across the spectrum of institutions affected are banding together to express their dismay at such a policy.  It is comforting to know that people will stand up and assert what is right, no matter the consequences.

I wish I could be like Antony in Shakespeare's Life and Death of Julius Caesar, able to slyly claim that I come to bury Kansas, not to praise it.  Sadly, there is little to praise and the only thing being buried is any hope that the Board of Regents can meaningfully care for the staff and teachers at the institutions under their charge.