As 2013 twists and turns to an uncertain end, it looks like we are moving dangerously backwards toward an Orwellian 1984. This pattern has become increasingly evident in one of the reddest of red states, Kansas. In Kansas social conservatives have a lock hold on power. Indeed Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, like other similarly inclined Republican governors, has led a successful effort to cut food stamps and slash education funding while providing substantial tax breaks to the wealthy -- a policy that in his view promotes the greater (economic) good. Now the Kansas Board of Regents, many members of which have been appointed by the governor, has voted to restrict academic free speech.
The specifics of the Kansas Board of Regents new policy are outlined and commented upon in Georgetown University Professor Erik Voeten's December 19 Washington Post column.
The Kansas Board of Regents just adopted a new social media policy, which allows Kansas state universities to fire (tenured and untenured) employees for "improper use" of social media. "Improper use" includes inciting violence (perhaps justifiable though potentially open to contentious interpretations, posting confidential information about students (fine) or posting things that are "contrary to the best interests of the university" (not fine at all!)
Carleton University Professor Steven Saideman has also published a recent blog about the institutional implications of the new Kansas university policy on social media.
...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.
Saideman also suggested that the policy means that
...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?
The Kansas policy is sadly part of a larger pattern. As I have been suggesting in previous blog posts, politicians and university managers, once called administrators, are systematically undermining the foundation of American higher education. For many years they have promoted the anti-intellectual ideology of higher education as job training. This goal now appears more important than teaching our students how to think systematically and critically. University budgets can be easily shaped to meet perceived employment goals. Curricula can be strategically adjusted for maximum student output. In this environment politicians are able to whip up their base and secure corporate support. For their part, university managers can expand their managerial base and see their salaries rise.
A vocal and critical cadre of professors who see their mission as challenging our young people to read widely, research soundly, think critically and write clearly is a threat to the political and institutional status quo. The holders of the public "trust" in Kansas must fear informed dissent based upon solid research. Why else would they threaten to fire professors who have the gall to challenge the "interest of the university?"
Kansas isn't the only state that has attempted to curb academic freedom of speech or monitor the content of university courses. In Colorado the administration of the University of Colorado Boulder has urged Professor Patti Adler to retire because of "concerns" they have about how she teaches her popular sociology course of on deviance. You don't want people to get the idea that controversial subjects that might challenge the sensibilities of our students could be brought up and discussed on campus! In Oregon, university managers wanted to monitor the campus and personal e-mails of professors -- just checking up.
The corporatization of the university is getting creepy and downright Orwellian. Are some of our state governments and public universities, which are more and more in the debt of corporate power and corporate models of institutional governance, coming to resemble the unsettling realities of Orwell's 1984? In that classic novel Big Brother attempts to dampen dissent and use technology to control the minds of the population -- all for the public good. Big Brother's government has its own language, "Newspeak" and has departments that rewrite history and construct propaganda to establish and reinforce the party line. In 1984, critical thinking and intellectual dissent are punished as a "thoughtcrimes."
When you think of the ideological dysfunction of Congress, or NSA citizen surveillance, or the Kansas Board of Regents' wish to restrict academic expression, or the corporate Newspeak of university five-year plans and assessment protocols, the specter of Orwellian governance casts its shadow on all of us. Such painful awareness often lulls us into wide-eyed sleep. In our powerless state, what can we do about it?
Those in power want us to feel powerless. They use fear to manage us. We in public higher education have the responsibility to combat that fear. It is our obligation to wake our students -- and perhaps the public as well -- from a potentially dangerous sleep. Such a tack has no political goal; it is a plea for a vigorous, uncensored exchange of ideas -- the very foundation of a democratic society -- even in Kansas.