Campus statements on “sensitive topics” like race, climate change must be run past president’s office first, CU says
The University of Colorado has instructed communications staff on the school’s campuses to avoid partisan language and submit any statements dealing with “sensitive” topics — including COVID-19 science, race relations, climate change and the First Amendment — to the office of President Mark Kennedy prior to publication.
That directive, made in a July memo recently obtained by The Denver Post, was denounced Monday by a CU regent and the chair of the systemwide Faculty Council as a move to control speech.
But the memo was not sent to, nor intended to impact, faculty, said Ken McConnellogue, the CU system spokesman who authored the document. Rather, he said, it was a heads-up to campus higher-ups calling for more measured, coordinated communication as the election approaches.
Regent Linda Shoemaker, D-Boulder, said she recently learned of the memo and felt it has a “chilling effect” over the campuses. She said she believes it could pressure CU’s campus leaders to censor themselves as to not offend the Republican majority on the Board of Regents.
“I believe this protocol is intended to muzzle campuses which have traditionally been very independent from the system,” she said.
Joanne Addison, an English professor on the Denver campus and chair of the CU Faculty Council, condemned the memo.
“This is a clear effort to regulate speech on some of the most important issues we face today,” she said. “It’s unconscionable that the President’s Office is calling for an ‘even-handed’ and ‘measured’ approach to racism, homophobia and academic freedom, as well as matters related to the health and safety of our students, staff and faculty.”
“Not surprise the regents”
The document was sent to nine administrators in senior communications roles at CU’s four campuses. Citing the upcoming election, it lists topics that warrant attention from CU’s top brass 24 to 48 hours before publication, and notes that some campus statements submitted to Kennedy’s office for pre-publication review will be shared with the Board of Regents as well — though “regents will not be asked to edit communications.”
The two-page memo lists more than a dozen subjects that “require heightened attention,” including health insurance, marijuana, COVID-19 science, campus reopening processes, international research funding, corporate research funding, divestment, international student visas, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program, First Amendment and free speech, climate change, academic freedom, race relations and LGBTQ+ issues.
Campus vice chancellors, according to the memo, are to “cascade awareness” of this approach to the colleges, schools and other units they oversee, according to the memo.
“The intent is to collaborate on sensitive communications in as timely a way as possible, understanding that many communication issues are fast-moving,” the memo states. “One goal is to not surprise the regents on communications.”
Regent Glen Gallegos, R-Grand Junction, said he was aware this discussion was happening among Kennedy and campus chancellors, but that regents were not involved in crafting the memo. The document, he said, should not be viewed as a policy but as a suggestion. He said he’s against censorship and doesn’t view this memo as such.
“It’s an interesting time out there with COVID and George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and the dollars that are not there from the state,” Gallegos said. “There’s a lot of things going on, and we try to represent what’s fair so that the general public that makes up the University of Colorado believes they’re reading a fair message.”
Monday marked the first time one of the campuses sent a draft communication to Kennedy’s office before publication since the memo was issued in late July, McConnellogue said.
The CU president’s office — and the regents, Gallegos confirmed — were given a brief heads-up before Boulder campus Chancellor Phil DiStefano emailed faculty saying he will not rescind the appointment of John Eastman following national outcry over the visiting conservative scholar’s essay in Newsweek questioning whether Sen. Kamala Harris is eligible to serve as vice president because her parents were born outside the United States.
McConnellogue said the intent of the document was to be measured in the university’s communications, particularly on politically sensitive topics, and to avoid overt editorializing.
He said there have been campus communications that some regents — “not one regent, not nine regents, but some regents” — have disagreed with, noting that the regents are from different political parties. CU’s Board of Regents is one of only a few politically elected university boards in the nation and is known for clashing along party lines.
Although McConnellogue said there was not one recent campus statement that upset regents, leaders on the Boulder campus officials have issued statements over the last few months asserting Black lives matter, condemning racism and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and supporting international students.
“In a contentious election year, it doesn’t benefit the university to be a lightning rod on all manner of issues,” McConnellogue told The Post. “The university will take a stand on issues that align with our mission and we will stand up for what is best for our students, faculty and staff. But we can and should be measured in how we do so.”
The memo states that because of Colorado’s makeup and the political nature of the Board of Regents, the administration should “write in purple ink, not blue or red when drafting statements on potentially controversial issues — we are not looking to make political statements, but we want to stand up for what is best for our faculty, staff and students.”
McConnellogue stressed that the memo was aimed at upper campus administration and its directives do not apply to faculty, staff or students.
“I do not have the inclination, ability or authority to influence dean or faculty communication,” McConnellogue said. “CU is a large, complex organization and does not have a single communication strategy or structure. I asked the communication vice chancellors to share the desire for measured communication on sensitive topics with those on campus they engage with, but campus communication is their purview, not mine.”
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