Victory for Academic Freedom at Middle Tennessee State U. · 16 March 2005

By Matt Anderson--MTSU Sidelines Online--03/17/05

The Student Government Association of Middle Tennessee State University passed a resolution on March 3 recommending the university adopt a policy protecting student's academic freedom.

Similarly worded legislation was proposed in the General Assembly last month. Both are based on the Academic Bill of Rights, which was written by David Horowitz, a conservative activist.

The vote was nearly unanimous, with three Senators voting nay.

Sens. Justin Owen, Lizzie Miller and Tyler Smith sponsored the resolution. Miller is the current Raider Republican president, and Owen is a former president.

Miller said that issues pertaining to academic freedom had been discussed at Raider Republican meetings, but she said SGA and Raider Republican business are kept separate.

"We do have similar beliefs so obviously we'd have similar interests in promoting this," Miller said. "That's why we got together, but by no means was it introduced at a Raider Republican meeting."

The SGA resolution recommends three rights for students.

First, it says instructors shall not create a hostile environment toward a student's political or religious beliefs and may not introduce controversial matter into course work that is substantially unrelated to a subject.

Second, it says a student's grades shall be based solely on reasoned knowledge and appropriate knowledge and that students shall not be discriminated against on the basis of political or religious beliefs.

Finally, it says the university shall distribute student activity fee funds on a viewpoint neutral basis, without regard to political or religious beliefs.

The resolution also recommends a grievance procedure by which students can seek redress for violations.

The main difference between the SGA resolution and the state legislation is that the state version creates a grade appeal process at the state level, while the SGA version keeps grade appeals at the university level.

Owen wrote the resolution after researching Horowitz's writings and various bills in state legislatures around the country. He also discussed it with Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, who introduced the state legislation.

"It's not partisan," Owen said. "It protects liberals from being attacked by a right-wing nutcase."

Owen doesn't think the resolution would limit free speech in the classroom.

"The student's voice in the classroom is just as important in the classroom as the teacher's," Owen said. "We need dialogue and not just a teacher pushing their views on students."

Miller said professors sometimes introduce political opinions in class when it is irrelevant to the subject.

"Not only do you feel that you're wasting your time and money, but you're feeling discriminated against or uncomfortable," Miller said. "When you're in math class, you don't need to hear about Democrats and Republicans. You simply need to learn math and numbers and equations."

Currently, students can make grade appeals in the office for Academic Affairs. No incident has been reported where a student's grade being lowered because of his political or religious beliefs, according to Jack Thomas, vice provost for academic affairs.

"Most of the time, it's because a student didn't come to class, missed a test or something of that nature," Thomas said.

Owen acknowledged that students can already appeal grades, but he said students may not know the procedure and that another procedure is necessary.

"It's ambiguous as to what constitutes grounds as to what they can seek redress for," Owen said.

Student activity fees are currently distributed on the basis of requests and the type of activity, according to Jackie Victory, director of student organizations and community service. Only activities with an educational purpose are funded.

If one group received $150 per student toward plane tickets, then every group would get that amount per student for plane tickets, Victory said.

The College Democrats requested $4,710 and received $820 in spring 2005. The Raider Republicans requested $6,175 and received $2,696 in the same period.

It's difficult to make a direct comparison between the two groups, because the requests were so different, Victory said.

"For instance, the Raider Republicans requested money to attend the inauguration, and the College Democrats requested money to hold an AIDS forum."

Last month, the Faculty Senate Steering Committee discussed the state version, per a request from Tennessee Board of Regents Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Paula Short. The committee advocated the deletion of the first clause.

Dan Pfeifer, a recording industry professor and TBR faculty sub council representative, said the state legislation was overly restrictive and could impugn instruction.

Pfeifer indicated that some parts of both the state legislation and the SGA resolution could be redundant with existing policies.

"[Grade appeals] are already in place," Pfeifer said. "You can always go to your dean or the provost."

Pfeifer also noted that the university's academic freedom policy for faculty discourages persistent, irrelevant material.

"If we don't talk about things that are controversial, we glaze over things," Pfeifer said.

"I teach music production," he said. "Look at the music lyrics these days. Taking out controversial material lops off half of pop culture."