Some weeks ago, on October 6, I was informed by a Kennesaw State University lawyer that I was being investigated because an anonymous complaint about me had been called into the USG (University System of Georgia) hotline. The complainant took issue with an email that I sent to my department that mentioned a campaign organized by our campus union chapter (United Campus Workers of Georgia) to show support for 24 recently laid off workers. The complaint alleged that the email was “intimidating.” (The text of the email is included at the bottom of this post.)
The KSU Legal Affairs representative told me that KSU was obligated to follow up on the complaint, that the resulting investigation would take a maximum of two weeks, and that their office was approaching the information not as an intimidation issue but as a potential violation of KSU’s email policy.
Six weeks later (it felt much longer), I was required to make an appointment to meet with a representative of the dean’s office to “discuss KSU’s email policy.” Moments later our department was informed that our department meeting the next day would include a 20 minute training on KSU’s email policy.
Later in the week, after asking for specifics on my meeting with the dean’s office, I received this:
“You have been found of having violated the KSU email policy, but it has also been determined that the KSU policy was not properly communicated to you nor to your colleagues. The investigation also discovered that other Department of English faculty had used the Department of English listserv inappropriately in the past without any consequence, hence there will be no formal action taken against you.”
During the departmental training on the email policy last week, my colleagues asked a variety of questions about what was acceptable use and what was not. Is it appropriate to inform each other of births, deaths, illness, etc. in our department? Is it appropriate to send emails regarding the collection of money for causes that most members of the department feel are worthy and relevant to the well-being of our colleagues? Is it appropriate to alert each other to collective or protest actions happening on campus? Our departmental distribution list has been used over the last several years for all of these things without consequence or administrative policy reminders. (And, for the record, I support the openness of that usage.) Some of us left the training more confused about how we should/shouldn’t use email.
I had my meeting with the dean’s office representative today. I was told that email policy language always needed to have “gray” areas, but that because my email was “political” in nature and not strictly about university business, I was in breach of the policy. I asked some follow-up questions asking for clarification about 1) what does and does not count as political speech and 2) whether email related to our colleagues’ well-being (births, deaths, illnesses, etc.) were also violations of the policy. The response was essentially, “I’m not a lawyer,” and that those questions would be best answered by someone else. We had a brief conversation about whether being a member of a union as a state employee in Georgia was legal which got interesting and complicated but was eventually resolved to both of our satisfaction (it’s not illegal to belong to a union in Georgia or anywhere else in the U.S.). It was explained that my department would now be vetting its faculty email list-serv with a moderator. Finally, I was reminded that there were no consequences for my violation because violation of the policy had become a regular practice in the department.
The events of the last six weeks have been stressful and lacking in transparency and kindness. The fact that they originated from the concerns of a colleague concerns me but is indicative of the amount of distrust and animosity that exists in our department. I wish that whoever reported my email had felt comfortable talking to me about the issue. I’ve done a lot of thinking about why that.
Additionally, why did the administrative apparatus at KSU decide to spend countless hours of its labor to police the viewpoint of an employee who expressed solidarity for their co-workers? (Seriously, do the math. At least one lawyer worked on this issue, on and off, for six weeks; additionally, three administrative representatives composed and delivered what ended up being a 45 minute presentation and 90 employees of the English Department were required to attend it. How much did all of that cost?) The administration could have decided that the email did not cause a problem, and that colleagues benefit from open communication about each other’s well being. Instead, it decided that a strict interpretation of the email policy — limiting what colleagues can discuss over email — would be better or safer.
So, why did all of this happen? I’m not 100% sure, but the union context is important. The KSU union chapter is fairly new on campus, but it’s been doing a significant amount of work since the COVID-19 lockdown, both at KSU and statewide, to raise awareness of the health of the campus, the erosion of shared governance, and the treatment of workers during the pandemic — including the 24 staff members who were laid off in September. (You can see some of that work on the chapter’s blog here.) So, the union has gotten some attention which potentially affects how the administration decided to approach the complaint.
There are human and institutional dimensions to all of this. The human part feels slippery, sad, and anxiety-inducing. Human to human, I wish I could ask my anonymous colleague: Why did my email threaten you? What might I have done differently over the last weeks or months so that, instead of reporting me, you would feel comfortable calling or emailing me to discuss how you feel? Or, to my department: Are we ok with this practice of anonymously reporting each other because of previous wrongs, ill will, or different organizational alignments?
From an institutional perspective, the issue seems more clear. The union isn’t going anywhere. Federal laws exist to protect union speech, membership, and organizing. So the obvious question is: will the university decide to engage the union, ignore the union, or punish its members? One of those choices is productive, and one of them is what we’ve come to expect. The third one is illegal.
The fact that “no formal action” will be taken against me is a relief. The possibility that future speech union-related speech might be suppressed is alarming.
Here is the text of the email I sent to my department on September 15 after the subject of staff layoffs came up in a department meeting:
At the risk of adding one more concern to everyone’s plate, I’m reaching out to invite you to show your support for and solidarity with the 24 KSU staff members that were laid off last month, very quietly, even while the university was congratulating itself for an increase in enrollment.
The union (UCWGA) is sponsoring a call-in campaign to the BOR today. You can read about it via this tweet stream which includes information about the layoffs, a number to call, and a script to use. If you want more background information, see this press release. If you support the message, it will only take 2 minutes to make the call; most of us have gotten voicemail and left a message using the script.