Guest column: A university isn’t a business, even in Kansas

John M. Crisp

Here’s a question brought to prominence by Thomas Frank’s 2004 book of the same name: What’s the matter with Kansas?

Frank considers the conservative political strategy in Kansas, his home state, which aims to get its citizens so riled up over social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage that they vote against their own economic interests, to the benefit of the Republican Party.

Of course, Kansas has no monopoly on misplaced priorities like these, but its conservatism makes it an apt location for actions taken last December by the Kansas Board of Regents, the governing body for state higher education.

In December the board approved a policy that gives any state university’s CEO “the authority to suspend, dismiss or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.”

“Social media” is defined in the policy as just about anything that involves electrons, from Twitter to Flickr including, presumably, email.

“Improper use” includes the incitement of violence and the disclosure of confidential student information. Fair enough.

But “improper use” also includes more vague offenses such as use of social media that is “contrary to the best interests of the university,” or that impairs “discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” or that “adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

What’s the matter with the Kansas Board of Regents?

Several things. For one, the development of this policy appears to have been spurred by Twittered remarks by a Kansas professor in response to last September’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. He blamed the National Rifle Association and may have expressed his views with a little more passion than is prudent.

Still, it’s usually a bad idea to implement a broad, sweeping policy for everyone in response to a single incident, especially in connection with social media, whose uses and conventions are still being developed and are unlikely to be thoroughly understood by the regents themselves.

Furthermore, the proposed policy is vague. What does it mean to say that something impairs “harmony among co-workers,” especially at institutions that exist to explore the frictions that develop when new ideas rub up against old?

There’s much more. But consider the destructive effect that this policy would have on the very nature of what colleges and universities anywhere in America, at best, should be. The regents, appointees of conservative Gov. Sam Brownback, share the modern inclination to think of universities as businesses or corporations. Thus the language of the proposed policy twice mentions “efficiency,” which in factories means balancing the cost of production with the salability of the product.

I suspect that the Kansas professoriate, as well as professors nationwide, isn’t as naive as businessmen imagine about the economics of producing affordable higher education. But “efficiency” isn’t nearly as easy to define at a university as at an automobile factory. The raw materials (students) are more complicated than steel and plastic, and the product (What should it look like?) isn’t nearly as simple as a car.

In short, these issues are subject to debate between the regents, who understand the bottom line extremely well, and the professoriate, which is smart enough to appreciate the bottom line, but may disagree with the regents over precisely where it should be drawn.

But if the new policy is implemented, professors could be subject to termination if their disagreement is professed too loudly, or in the wrong way, or even at all.

Fortunately, I happen to be writing from the relative safety of Texas, where repressive tactics like those proposed in Kansas haven’t — as yet — gained much purchase. But I wonder whether, if I raised these same modest objections in Wichita or Topeka, I could be subject to termination.

No wonder the Kansas professoriate and the American Association of University Professors are pushing back. The essential nature of the university — in Kansas and elsewhere — is at risk.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected].