One of conservatives' favorite rhetorical tropes is to criticize the "liberal elite." Birthed largely by Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, it was perfected by Nixon. Spiro Agnew, Nixon's attack dog/Vice-President made references to the coastal elite, a red-meat line in his speeches. Necessarily included in the liberal elite were university professors. And it remains an article of faith among conservatives today that university professors are effete liberal snobs who thought they were better than you. College students who are conservative, for example, are praised for their efforts in battling liberal academics. Indeed, in the right-wing fever swamp blogosphere, our universities are run by tenured Marxists and the PC thought police.
This actually is not true, at least not to the extent that conservatives' rhetoric would have it (from right to left, ideologically speaking, the trends go: business schools, natural sciences, social sciences and the liberal arts). Moreover, as universities have become increasingly focused on endowments and bringing in grant money, the liberal arts have become marginalized. The reality is this: most universities are now run more like businesses rather than centers of higher learning.
And sit tight, the worm may be turning. It appears that it is now the conservatives who are acting like the thought police. In September, after another "active shooter" incident, this time at the Navy Yard in Washington, a tenured journalism professor at the University of Kansas (David W. Guth) tweeted:
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"#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you."
Harsh rhetoric? Sure. Probably not a good idea to tweet your visceral reaction to a tragic incident? Again, sure.
However, the Kansas Board of Regents took the troubling step of suspending Guth. Pro-gun activists called for Guth to be fired. Instead, the Board of Regents reinstated Guth. But here's where the problem lies: the Board of Regents recently passed a new social media policy that allows it to terminate both tenured and untenured professors for "improper use" of social media. "Improper use" includes inciting violence, but seems to be open to interpretation, interpretations that may be run counter to academic freedom. Most worrisome, the policy also allows it to fire professors if they tweet or post something deemed "contrary to the best interests of the university." You could drive a truck through this provision. Contrary to the best interests of the university is as broad as the Regents' imagination.
I might be worried if I was professor under the thumb of the Kansas Board of Regents. Tweet/post/Instagram at your own risk. And start talking to good First Amendment lawyers.