The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

On Wednesday, December 18, 2013, the Kansas Board of Regents made a move to end faculty job security.

 

Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

 

First, an explanation: I work at SUNY Potsdam, where “tenured” faculty are technically on “continuing appointment,” meaning that “tenured” faculty have open-ended contracts.  In my case, I was on 2-year contracts and had to reapply every two years for my job.  It was a tiring process, but I’m hardly in a position to complain, given that I enjoy a measure of job security not enjoyed by the majority of higher education faculty.  My point is that, while tenure popularly means “job for life,” what it really means (at least in my case) is that I no longer need to apply for my job.  It does not mean that I cannot be fired.  In fact, like employees in other industries, tenured faculty can be fired for cause.  So now the question is: what constitutes cause?

 

According to the new guidelines outlined by the Kansas Board of Regents, one such cause includes the following:

“The chief executive officer of a state university has the authority to suspend, dismiss or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media. “Social media” means any facility for online publication and commentary, including but not limited to blogs, wikis, and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube.”

The key phrase here is “improper use,” which the Board of Regents defines as any comment that:

“ii. when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee’s official duties, is contrary to the best interests of the University;

iii. discloses without authority any confidential student information, protected health care information, personnel records, personal financial information, or confidential research data; or

iv. subject to the balancing analysis required by the following paragraph, impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

Now, for those unfamiliar with higher education practices, section iii is redundant.  Students are already so protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.  It’s a good law, and it’s worth remembering how important it is that student information be kept confidential.  But like I said, in this case it’s redundant.  

The above link does a better job than I could addressing section iv, so I refer you back to that article.  I’d like to use my time here to focus on section ii, which is where we see the first step toward ending job security for faculty.

 

The phrase “contrary to the best interests of the University” may, at first glance, appear to be vague.  It may even appear to be boiler-plate.  However, it is neither of those things.  It is, in fact, far more sinister.  

 

Note that the person who gets to decide what is in the best interest of the university is the chief executive officer.  The CEO is corporate officer.  As such, “best interest” here is going to be defined in corporate terms, not academic terms.  Or, more specifically, it will be defined in financial terms.

 

It is at this point that I should remind everyone that, on the whole, university administrators think in terms of the bottom line, and that “best interest” equates to “best financial interest.” And tenure, as many administrators make clear, is not in the best financial interests of the university.*  So what this means, to me, is that the Kansas Board of Regents is looking for a way to eliminate tenure by eliminating tenure track faculty.  Instead of waiting for tenure track faculty to die off and be replaced with adjuncts,** Kansas has now instituted a measure to speed up the process.

 

Before you accuse me of paranoia, allow me to make what should be a very obvious point: if I worked under the authority of the Kansas Board of Regents, I could be terminated for cause because of this blog.  In particular, because of this post.  Also this one.  Most certainly this one.  

 

As noted above, I enjoy a degree of job security.  I also enjoy a deal of freedom in my writing, personal as well as professional.  There are no limits on how I can define my research agenda.  Or how and where I can publish.  I am free to write blogs such as this one, and free to express my disapproval with aspects of my university’s operation.***

 

I enjoy those freedoms, in part, because I work at a university that offers a traditional liberal arts education, with a particular focus on the arts and education.  In other words, it’s our job to teach people how to think, to guide people in the various forms of expression, and then to teach them to impart those skills to others.  I work for an institution, in an industry, that values debate and discussion.  In fact, my university requires courses in public speaking that at times includes debate; the free exchange of ideas forms the bedrock of the kind of education I and my colleagues provide.

 

I fear this decision by the Kansas Board of Regents because it sets a dangerous precedent that I hope no other system – including, of course, the SUNY system – adopts.  I also hope that Kansas ultimately recognizes that this decision is dangerous in the long term.  It’s dangerous for all the reasons noted in the piece I link to above, but especially so because of the growing use of social media as a tool in the classroom.  Faculty who use social media as a pedagogical tool (or even as a space for professional discussion and debate) will now have to be extra careful about their use.  Some, for fear of losing their jobs, may stop using it altogether.  One cannot be fired for inappropriate use of social media if one does not engage with social media.^  However, as universities increase their demand for online courses and use of emerging technologies (particularly in an effort to reach more students), faculty will be (and rightly so) finding new ways to engage students over social media.  But not if they fear that the content of what they teach may lead to their dismissal.  This is particularly so for those faculty who teach controversial topics.^^

 

The university needs to be a space for the free exchange of ideas.  Especially controversial ideas.  The university needs to be a safe space where faculty can challenge students and students can challenge faculty.  Where faculty can explore research projects without fear that such research – and especially the sharing of such research – can be used to terminate their employment.

 

Academic freedom is in the best intellectual interest of the university.  Period.  And any measure that allows for faculty to be terminated for pursuing research or creative projects  – even if those projects critique the operations of the university, the state, or larger concerns in higher education and politics – works against intellectual freedom and, as such, works against the best interest of the university.

 

Academic freedom is always in the best interest of the university.

 

*For instance, SUNY Potsdam is currently under an indefinite hiring freeze for tenure track faculty (with a few exceptions, all of which had to be approved by the interim president).  There is no hiring freeze for contingent labor, precisely because the university is looking to expand the numbers of incoming freshmen and transfer students.  Knowing that they will need to offer more classes – not to mention the many departments (including my own) whose faculty:student ratio is getting unwieldy – university administration is fine with hiring part-time labor that does not enjoy any measure of job security.

**What we might call that more traditional route, and one reason why the numbers of non-tenure track faculty are skyrocketing compared to the numbers of tenure track faculty.  

***I have no idea if my blog is being read by my department chair or members of the university administration.  I doubt that it is.  However, I recognize that it could be.  This is a public blog and, I hope, a place where public discussion about issues in higher education could be discussed.

^Once upon a time, this would have been me.  Many of my friends – including Josh Eyler (whose blog I linked you to above) – have asked me to join Twitter.  I doubt I will; it just doesn’t seem to appeal to my nature.  (I am more long-winded than Twitter seems to allow for.)  But I am recognizing the growing possibilities for using social media to achieve our academic goals (to say nothing of social and political goals).  Maybe someday I will.  But likely only when it’s been declared officially dead.

^^I should at this point note that I teach, among other things, counter-culture literature and ethnic American literature, both of which include controversial topics and language.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

  1. Kara

    I particularly resent the aspect of this decision that further entangles the public and the private of university teaching staff. We have been complicit in this, because it was convenient for us to take our work home and grade there, to write and publish on our own time, and to answer emails at times that suited us rather than clearly delineated work hours. But that still should not mean we have given up any right to have a private life in which we may do and say what we like without it being taken as a an act for and about our jobs. We have become like politicians, whose every word, if overheard or published, is yoked to their job. I do not want that. It was not like that when I started teaching.

    This is all aside from the fact that tenure’s protection of freedom of expression traditionally includes freedom to critique the academy itself. Hell, how else would we have gotten administrators all those cheap online courses if it weren’t for academics critiquing the hidebound traditional in-person class?

    • I hadn’t considered the public/private split, but you are absolutely correct. I have, for years, been trying (and largely failing) to make that split clearer in my own life. And starting next semester (as part of my desire to account for all the time I spend on the clock), I’m going to try an hold myself to very specific working hours.

      But regarding your point, this does set a very dangerous precedent. And in that regard, I’m curious to know why it is that faculty are dangerous enough to have their speech monitored, but not important enough to be part of the decision-making processes (especially with regard to determining what is in the best interest of the university). If we are important enough that what we say matters, then we should have a larger role in university governance.

  2. For those of us who work in very, very controversial disciplines (I am a linguist in a Native Studies department), these kinds of rulings are particularly frightening. As you’ve pointed out, part of our job is to “stir the pot” and challenge students. I don’t see that practice lasting much longer with these kinds of rules…

    • That, I think, is the point. There are those in academic administration who don’t want the pot stirred, and this is how they try to regulate faculty.

      It would not at all surprise me if we start seeing “pot-stirring” programs close as tenure-track faculty are not replaced (due to budget concerns) and programs simply disappear for lack of faculty and funding.

      • Yeah I know. I was agreeing with you. 🙂 Honestly, I’ve given some serious thought to just canning my blog. All the hate mail I get, all the threats from superiors. Maybe it’s time to pack up and leave the internet entirely!

  3. What do you think of the issue they’re trying to fix, though? Faculty members who go on Facebook and Twitter, expressing themselves in exceptionally unprofessional ways about stuff they would be fired for at a normal job? Is there someway to meet these CEO-types half way? Sounds like you’re arguing for better wording of these policies, I think, rather than scrapping it entirely (like some other sources I’ve read).

    • As I noted, posting confidential student information is already protected. Faculty can already be punished for doing so. But to answer your broader question, what do you mean by “expressing themselves in exceptionally unprofessional ways”? That again seems like a vague judgment call, and one that we leave to administrators and not faculty (which is part of my problem with the measures).

      As Kara asks above, do faculty have a right to a personal life outside of their job duties? That is, should faculty be terminated for legal activities enjoyed outside of their professional duties? I am a state employee, which means that my contract can be terminated for violating NY state and/or US federal law. But if I am engaged in legal activities, and I document those activities on my personal (read: not work related) social media, what right should the university have to terminate me?

      • I don’t mean anything vague by that, honestly, because I’m not talking about borderline stuff, like swearing or whatever. I mean “I hate American students and I hate teaching them.” or “It’s so stupid we have religious people, still, they’re all like Hitler.” or “I found out one of my students went to a Sarah Palin rally so I gave her an F, the cunt.” Or “Any American who chooses not to vote is an Anarchist. That includes [name of student] and [name of other student] who are just juvenile anarchists, anyway.” (All actual things I have seen faculty say on Facebook and Twitter – or in a classroom directed at the student – believe it or not.) I think we all should be in agreement that this kind of thing is out of line, you know?

        It already violates most universities’ codes of conduct, of course, (and various governments’ codes on universal human rights), so I don’t think it’s perhaps necessary to slip in more rules about it. But I think this kind of conduct is why these kinds of new, ugly restrictions get justified.

      • I think the ‘legal’ activities outside of class time are complex, and it depends on what is said and how. It is a different issue, though, than stuff directly related to our work, which is what we were talking about a bit ago. (E.g. what do you do if you work in a controversial field, where whatever you say is going to challenge/upset someone?)

        The fact is, outside of academics, people get fired all the time for their personal lives. It’s not fair, but social media is used to punish regular people constantly. Make a rude joke on Twitter, lose your job.

        I would be more sympathetic to us being treated like regular ’employees’ if we had regular employee rights as well. The courts have repeatedly sided against faculty when suits about employment equity come up, treating the academy as a separate world all its own. If they want to undo that while suddenly treating us like employees of GM, fine, but otherwise we’ll end up with the worst of both worlds…

  4. “I think we all should be in agreement that this kind of thing is out of line, you know?”

    I don’t think we are in agreement, and in some of those cases, there are already provisions to remove faculty from their positions for making such comments. That would make the Kansas mandate (in those instances) redundant. But where I disagree with you is the notion that what I post as a person should reflect how I am treated as an employee. Now, if I am discussing students by name, then I am engaging in social media as a profession (in that those students and their work are part of my professional duties), and such comments can be used to fire me. But your second example – the Hitler example – while it may be offensive to some, does not engage my professional duties as a teacher or scholar. Such a statement may be offensive, but I don’t agree that “saying something offensive” constitutes just grounds to fire a professor. (This goes back to teaching difficult issues. If I can be fired for posting something on Facebook that some people find offensive, then I can fired for saying in class something that students find offensive. This is a dangerous precedent.) How do I justify firing a professor for offending religious students if I am not also ready to fire a professor of ethnic studies who offends white students by teaching critical race theory? And more importantly, should “someone might be offended” be the barometer for what constitutes grounds for dismissal?

    “It’s not fair, but social media is used to punish regular people constantly.”

    That sounds like a horrible reason to be able to fire faculty. Ensuring that everyone is mistreated equally is hardly the goal we should set for ourselves.

  5. Pingback: “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.” | creativityinthecollegeclassroom

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