Thursday, December 19, 2013

Tenure, Shmenure

I might have to re-think this whole life choice.  Tenure is supposed to mean more than just job security--that it is about academic freedom.  To teach and research in ways that may not always be popular and certainly in ways that are not politically desirable.  Yet in the past couple of weeks, we have seen that tenure may not be all that it is cracked up to be.

The more famous case right now is at U of Colorado at Boulder where a prof seems to have been retired a wee bit early because of how she was teaching prostitution.  To be clear, the topic is quite germane (this was not a math class) as she is a sociologist teaching about deviance.  The particular method seemed like an interesting demonstration that included role play (nothing graphic or sexual), but somebody complained and the university became a bunch of weenies who would not stand behind their professor.  Not that surprising.  Awful, but not that surprising.

What does surprise me is this: U of Kansas's Board of Regents approved a policy that would govern how profs and staff use social media--even social media that is not owned/performed on university equipment on university time apparently.  The university can now suspend or fire someone who "improperly uses social media, including Facebook, Twitter and other sites." WTF?  Just for inciting violence right?  Nay:
i. directly incites violence or other immediate breach of the peace;
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 service,
To be clear, i and iii make sense to me.  If you incite violence, then a public institution should be able to fire you, even if you do it on your time.  If you disclose info about students and such online, then, yes, that is an abuse of your power, and you should be fired.  But ii and iv trouble me a great deal.

I really don't know what ii means but it seems to mean that the university can fire a prof or staff who blogs, tweets, facebooks or whatevers any criticism of the university (since the university's best interest is defined by itself to look wonderful and error-free) or their own political views.  This is counter to everything I know about academic governance and .... personal freedom.  Given that Kansas is a public institution, this is essentially saying that an agent of the state can fire state employees for pretty much any reason that the university defines as its own best interests.

iv also troubles me since any university administrator can take anything and twist into something that "adversely affects the university."  Again, this is not about someone running naked through the halls or beating students or whatever, but posting stuff on social media.  Like a blog ... like this one.  Oh crap.  I am sorry, almighty masters of profs everywhere.  I shall sin no more.  From now on, I will vet each blog post here with the authoritarians authorities responsible for vetting my every utterance.  On the positive side, this would give administrators more reason to hire more administrators to monitor all social media and run the various processes to fire deviant professors (and by deviant, I mean those that might utter criticisms of their employers from time to time on the internet).  Does the phone count as social media because perhaps universities should tap professor's phones, even their private cell phones, too?

What makes universities the valuable places they are to the public is that they are places where ideas are exchanged freely and frequently.  Social media helps make our stuff get out further beyond the walls of our campuses.  This is a good thing.  If it means that folks sometimes say cranky stuff, suck it up.  Be mature and responsible institutions that can handle a little dissent.  Otherwise, you risk squelching much of the value added of these knowledge-creation/dissemination places (or whatever they are called these days). 

If this policy stays in place, will U of Kansas's best and brightest exit to places where tenure still means something?  I sure hope so.  Just don't go to Colorado since they are nervous nillies there about sex.  Good thing marijuana is legal there....

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