Cover Story

Shedding the intellectual straitjacket

Academic freedom has often become an opportunity for radical professors to proselytize students. Now the discussion is turning to academic freedom for students: the opportunity to hear a variety of viewpoints and present their own, without faculty intimidation

Issue: "Faculty follies," April 29, 2006

As commencement orators or their ghostwriters write their speeches for graduations next month or in early June, bookings for liberals such as Sen. John Kerry and Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen outpace those for conservatives by 2-to-1. That ratio is smaller than usual, but a coalition of conservatives and moderates aims higher: Its goal is to have more college professors teaching students how to think rather than what to think.

Activist David Horowitz, along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and hundreds of students and professors, are asking state legislators and Congress to push back against politics in the classroom. Mr. Horowitz, who recently helped launch a campus network called Students for Academic Freedom, teamed with Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) to push a measure called the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) through the U.S. House last month.

Attached as a "sense of Congress" to H.R. 609, the College Access and Opportunity Act of 2006, ABOR affirms intellectual diversity as a key strength of education and states that students should not be intimidated or graded down because of their political, religious, or ideological beliefs. Versions of ABOR have been or are up for discussion in the legislatures of more than 20 states.

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Like H.R. 609, the state measures have no teeth. They simply condemn viewpoint discrimination against students and discourage off-topic political grandstanding and indoctrination incidents like these:

  • After a student pro-life group erected a display on campus, Northern Kentucky University literature professor Sally Jacobsen invited her graduate students to help her destroy it. On April 12 at about 5:30 p.m., the tenured teacher and her students uprooted about 400 small white crosses and chucked them into garbage cans. The U.S. Supreme Court has extended First Amendment protection to such displays, but Professor Jacobsen told reporters: "Any violence perpetrated against that silly display was minor compared to how I felt when I saw it."
  • When a conservative foundation last year organized a lecture by a pro-Iraq War veteran at New Jersey's Warren County Community College, freshman Rebecca Beach promoted the event by e-mailing faculty members. John Daley, an adjunct professor of English, replied with an e-mail of his own: "[R]eal freedom will come when soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors. . . . I will continue to expose your right-wing, anti-people politics until groups like yours won't dare show their face on a college campus." Mr. Daley later said he did not know he was e-mailing a student, but he also argued that his critics were attacking his "academic freedom."
  • The University of California-Berkeley's course offerings this spring include "Ethnic Studies 198: The Prop. 209 Project." Prop. 209, a California voter initiative that prohibited the state from creating preferential programs based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin, passed handily in 1996. Although UC's course content policy states that the university "must remain aloof from politics," the course description for Ethnic Studies 198 has students crafting "a political strategy" to reverse Prop. 209, and a course application asked students to "please describe any technical skills that would be useful in a political campaign."

Like UC, many colleges and universities already prohibit political activism and indoctrination. National groups such as the American Council on Education state that "neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions." The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statement on academic freedom reads, "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."

Nevertheless, AAUP and several teachers unions are leading the fight against Mr. Horowitz's efforts, which-according to the AAUP's Roger Brown-attempt to "undermine the well-placed confidence of this nation in its exemplary higher education system." William Scheuerman, president of the United University Professions, a New York AFL-CIO affiliate, labeled ABOR a "noble-sounding . . . stealth attack" and an attempt to legislate a new "version of McCarthyism."

Mr. Horowitz notes that even many conservatives "tend to adopt the left's view that I want to legislate what universities do. But I don't." His goal, he said, is to mobilize lawmakers to hold publicly funded schools accountable for policing their own standards of conduct: "Hey, enforce the rules."

Six years ago, UC's failure to enforce its own rules against classroom politics turned Luann Wright from educator and concerned mom into academic freedom activist. A former high-school teacher who now writes biology curriculum for gifted students, Ms. Wright, 58, spent 15 years as a docent at the San Diego Natural History Museum and is a guide at nearby Mission Trails Regional Park. After her son, Kyle, entered UC-San Diego in 2000, she "had hoped to do more bird watching and nature study."

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