Pennsylvania Legislative Committee Advocates Sweeping Reforms to Campus Academic Freedom Policies · 16 November 2006

By Sara Dogan

Letter from the National Campus Director

Editor's note: The following letter reports on the contents of the original report which was drafted under the supervision of Representative Gibson Armstrong, sponsor of the authorizing legislation (HR 177) for the Pennsylvania Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education of the Pennsylvania House. The Committee held four sets of hearings between September 2005 and June 2006 at locations throughout the state.  It differs from the final report in several crucial respects. The final report was the product of an eleventh hour coup by the Democratic minority on the committee and two Republicans beholden to the teacher unions and university administrators. In the final report, the entire Summary of Testimony – which is to say the actual report of what transpired – has been deleted. Also deleted is “Appendix A” which contains the new academic freedom policies adopted by Temple University and Penn StateUniversity in response to the hearings. The Committee recommendations in the final report have also been watered down. Thus every reference to “student-specific” rights has been removed. This was an attempt by the teacher unions and administrators to deny that problem existed in the higher education system before the committee was formed and to keep citizens and students from understanding the dramatic changes that have been achieved.

Dear Students and Supporters,

In an historic victory for the Academic Freedom Movement, a select committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives charged with examining the condition of academic freedom at the state’s public colleges and universities has concluded that students’ academic freedom rights are not protected in the 17 public colleges and universities in the state and that significant reforms are necessary.

The committee’s report summarizes the conclusions drawn from 10 months of hearings throughout the state of Pennsylvania, and determines “that a significant number of institutions had adopted faculty academic freedom policies, but not student academic freedom policies.”

“In many cases, institutions cited faculty academic freedom policies as applicable to students,” the committee’s report noted. “However, faculty policies are not readily available to students. Additionally, few schools that have student academic freedom policies make them readily available to students via student policy handbooks or the internet.”

To remedy the present situation the Pennsylvania committee has recommended that “Public institutions of higher education within the Commonwealth should be required to review existing academic freedom policies and procedures and establish a student-specific academic freedom policy that includes student rights and a detailed grievance procedure is readily-available.”

The Committee further recommends that grievance machinery should be provided to students which allows them to file complaints with university officials other than faculty, a measure which Horowitz called “essential” because of students’ fear of faculty reprisals.

The Committee also called on “all public institutions of higher education” to maintain records of the complaints and provide students with evaluation forms regarding the “status of academic freedom,” and to make students aware of the availability of academic freedom policies and grievance procedures during student orientation when they are also informed of non-discrimination policies on the basis of gender and race.

Finally, the Committee instructed all public universities to create an “Office of Academic Standards and Intellectual Diversity to establish clear standards of appropriate academic discourse in curricular matters and classroom discourse” and “to strengthen academic freedom on their campuses.”

In order to ensure compliance with its recommendations, the Committee report dictates that “All public institutions of higher education shall make a report of actions taken regarding the recommendations of this Select Committee to the Chairman and Minority Chairman of the Subcommittee on Higher Education of the House Education Committee no later than November 1, 2008.”

The select committee was formed as a result of the passage of HR 177, an academic freedom resolution introduced by Representative Gibson Armstrong, and inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights.

David Horowitz, author of the Academic Bill of Rights and sponsor of a nationwide campaign for academic freedom, hailed the report as a “major victory in the battle for student rights.” Said Horowitz: “We have been trying to draw attention to this deficiency in university policies for three years. Now our pleas have been heard.”

Advocating Reforms on Your Campus

The select committee’s report provides a tremendous opportunity to further the academic freedom movement, not only in Pennsylvania, but in all 50 states. The existing policies on Pennsylvania’s campuses which the legislative committee just ruled insufficient are by-and-large the same policies which exist at colleges and universities across the nation: they protect the academic freedom of faculty but not of students, and do not provide an appropriate grievance procedure whereby students can challenge violations of their academic freedom. 

We urge our SAF chapter leaders to use the Pennsylvania Report (soon to be published on our website) as ammunition to spark an academic freedom revolution in your own state. Examine your school’s academic freedom policies to see whether they specifically protect students’ academic freedom (in virtually all cases, they will not). Survey your fellow students about their experiences in the classroom to collect evidence that students’ academic freedom is being violated. Once you have amassed a body of evidence that changes are necessary, request a meeting with your college president or dean of students and ask them to adopt a policy specifically protecting students’ academic freedom such as the Temple Bill of Rights, a policy adopted this summer by Temple University in Pennsylvania in response to the academic freedom hearings held by the Select Committee.

How to Get Involved

If you’re not already active in Students for Academic Freedom, please contact me at Sara@studentsforacademicfreedom.org This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it or at 888-527-3321. You can also find more information on our website at http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/. We can help you to start a chapter of Students for Academic Freedom and bring the academic freedom movement to your campus today.       

Yours in Freedom,

Sara Dogan
National Campus Director
Students for Academic Freedom