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Kansas regents see possible attack on tenure

Published on -10/18/2013, 3:54 PM

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- The head of the Kansas Board of Regents said he's heard that legislators may be discussing changes to how public universities award tenure, following the uproar over a tenured professor's tweet blaming last month's fatal attack at the Navy Yard in Washington on National Rifle Association lobbying.

Board of Regents Chairman Fred Logan raised the issue during a board meeting Thursday and suggested that the board should issue a statement reaffirming its support of the current university tenure system, the Topeka Capital Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1c0ybQM ).

The board didn't act. Logan said he's heard talk of legislators trying to change tenure rules, though no proposal has become public.

Logan said the board's policies already include general statements regarding tenure but asked the other members of the board whether stronger language should be considered.

"If we modify tenure in a way that we couldn't recruit faculty members, that's not good for the state of Kansas," Logan said.

Conservative Republican legislators -- many of whom have accepted money from the NRA -- have demanded that the University of Kansas fire journalism professor David Guth over a tweet following September's shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington that left 13 dead.

His tweet said the victims' blood was on the hands of the NRA and "Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters."

Guth, who has tenure and has been at the university since 1991, is on indefinite paid administrative leave. The university issued a statement at the time denouncing Guth's comments.

Mary Jane Stankiewicz, the board's legislative liaison, said there were "rumblings" about legislators wanting to look at tenure but nothing official has been stated or put into proposed legislation.

Regent Kenny Wilk, a former Kansas House member, said waiting for legislative action to materialize was a more prudent course for the board.

"I don't want to presume what the Legislature's going to do," Wilk said. "I see no need to drop cookie crumbs for them. If they decide to go down that path, we'll address it then."

Regent universities have varying procedures designed to protect professors from being fired without just cause, such as a documented history of incompetence or poor performance. Washburn University President Jerry Farley said he has heard complaints about tenure in the past.

"That is not unusual that it would come up, and it usually comes up because people don't understand what tenure is," Farley said. "Tenure is basically there to protect academic freedom."

Farley said tenure protects faculty from retribution from university administrators for taking certain views, but also serves to encourage open discourse on campuses.

"Ideas sometimes take a long time to be accepted or take root," Farley said. "At the beginning they may seem inappropriate, but if we're going to encourage faculty first and students second to expand their minds and think critically, you have to give them the room to do it."

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