Over the course of the last few months, Melissa Hunsicker-Walburn, assistant professor of informatics and interim chair, has been a member of the Kansas Board of Regents designated workgroup, which is working to improve the board’s current social media policy affecting faculty across the state.
“The social media policy was advanced through the Board of Regents and announced publicly in the middle of December. What that policy outlined and it’s contained in the Board of Regents policy section, relating to dismissal of employees, and what it did was add causes related to use of speech and social media that would give a CEO of a university the right to terminate employment of someone who was using social media inappropriately,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
The Kansas Board of Regents’ social media policy is largely based on a court case that went to the Supreme Court in 1968.
“The policy, as it stands, was crafted with a great deal of language that came from the Pickering court case [Pickering v. Board of Education], which is kind of the prevailing court case in this area of academic free speech,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
The workgroup began after some public concern about the current Regent’s policy regarding social media and termination of university employees.
“After the December 19th policy was announced by the Kansas Board of Regents, there was fairly wide-spread public outcry to the Board of Regents, that the policy was overly broad and vague. There were certainty a number of faculty at institutions throughout the state that felt that the policy infringed on their rights to free speech, as citizens and also would impair their ability to effectively do their job as an academic in the state of Kansas,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
The workgroup was formed to help the Board of Regents make their existing policy more specific to Kansas institutions and use of different forms of social media.
“So as a result of this public outcry, the Board of Regents formed a workgroup for the purpose of modifying and making recommendations to their existing policy. From December 19th, to when classes resumed in the middle of January, the Board of Regents went ahead and asked the administrations of the universities to make recommendations about who they would like to represent their universities interests on the workgroup that was being designated to modify the policy or make recommendations,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
From FHSU, two women were selected to represent the university’s interests and viewpoints on the workgroup.
“I was recommended, as well as Kristen Rupp, who is the university’s web content manager/coordinator. She and I represent Fort Hays State on the workgroup. The other institutions around the state also made recommendations for their representatives, which includes several faculty and presidents; we have one person who is a legal counsel for the president’s office at Emporia. We have quite a diverse array of interest and expertise representatives on the workgroup,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
To begin creating a policy recommendation, the members of the workgroup started by speaking with the CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents.
“It [the social media policy recommendation] was designed based on the briefings our workgroup received from Andy Tompkins, the CEO of the Board of Regents. What he had described, was that it was the board’s desire to have a policy that reflected the current case law, relating to academic freedom and free speech,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
As well as creating issues and uncertainty for current employees, the current policy could potentially harm the state of Kansas when it comes to hiring and attracting the best faculty or administrators.
Hunsicker-Walburn added that along with the challenges that the policy itself is facing, there were several people who wished the Board of Regents would have consulted faculty, which may have resulted in collaboration, instead of the board just declaring the policy without any faculty input.
“There were also concerns that the chilling effect that this policy would have on an academic’s right to free speech, and would possibly not only harm higher education in the state of Kansas, because it would limit the advancement of ideas, in college, with discussions, but it was also disadvantage Kansas institutions in the area of recruiting faculty to our state. There were lots of concerns raised that Kansas would have a harder time attracting the finest academics because there would be this uncertainty or overly broad regulation of their right to free speech as it relates to social media,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
Even through the process of the workgroup and creation of the policy recommendation, the Board of Regents insisted the current policy stand during this time.
“There were some requests made by both the American Association of University Professors and the faculty senate, the state group of faculty senate presidents, that asked them to suspend their policy while we figured this out, and that was declined twice. The Board of Regents said ‘No, we’re going to let this policy stand, even while the workgroup is doing its work to make recommendations,’” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
The workgroup met many times to critique their ideas and suggestions about the policy, while taking public opinions into consideration.
“Since the end of January, our workgroup has met several times, both in Topeka and at Emporia State, to go about modifying this policy. At our last meeting, we ended up having a draft recommendation, which is what we put out on our website, and it is quite a lot different than what the Board of Regents put forward. What the Board of Regents put forward is described in the dismissal section of their policies and it gives the CEO the authority, expressly, to terminate someone’s employment for those certain conditions outlined in their policy,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
On the other hand, the workgroup’s suggestions are different from what the Board of Regents originally outlined.
“The policy that the workgroup has put out for public comment is designed to be more proactive and positive approach to giving faculty, while giving institutions the opportunity to control social media how it’s defined, guidance about how to responsibly use social media. It would recommend that the Board of Regents declare their policy to preserve academic freedom. That declaration is currently not in the Regent’s policy. It would also require the institutions individually to have social media policies,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
The workgroup’s opinions differed from the Board of Regent’s policy when it came to advising the faculty about the situation.
“The workgroup felt that it was more meaningful to give faculty and staff the expectation about how to use social media properly and recognizing that there is value to having faculty engaged in discussions with students, or with other academics, or other professional workgroups through social media. If there was concern about the appropriateness of their behavior and how their behavior or statements reflected on an institution, institutions image or brand, that there could be a balance achieved by having institutional guidelines,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
The workgroup paid attention to the legal perspectives to ensure that the new policy recommendation would stand in any case.
“The workgroup also heard from a constitutional law professor at KU, he came in and talked about free speech, what kind of policies tend to be upheld constitutionally, which kinds of policies tend to be more vulnerable to constitutionality challenges, and that the workgroup’s policy recommendation would probably not be subject to challenge,” Hunsicker-Walburn said.
Hunsicker-Walburn added that many people think that if the current Board of Regents policy stands, it will most certainly be litigated at some point.
The workgroup put their policy recommendation out for public comment, and will be making their final conclusions and final document to the Board of Regents in mid-April. From there, the Board of Regents will either accept or deny the workgroup’s recommendation document.
Overall, there are 13 representatives from various institutions on the Board of Regents workgroup. There are two representatives from each regent university and one representative from University of Kansas Medical Center.
Currently, FHSU does not have social media guidelines for its faculty or administrators, so if the workgroup’s recommendation is accepted, FHSU will need to advance and create some sort of policy or social media guidelines.