'Academic Freedom' Sparks Debate · 01 March 2005

State bill touted to protect students from biased teaching

Samantha Young--The University of TN Pacer--03/01/05

An "academic bill of rights" was proposed in the Tennessee legislature on Feb. 3. Tennessee joins nine other states with such bills pending. Only one state, Colorado, has passed such a bill. Another bill has been sent to committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.

These bills are based on the Academic Bill of Rights developed by David Horowitz, a conservative activist and founder of Students for Academic Freedom (SAF). SAF is "concerned about the treatment of conservative students as second class citizens and the abuse of the classroom by faculty who used their positions of authority as educators to pursue political agendas," according to an article in Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine.

Tennessee's bill, introduced by Sen. Raymond Finney (R-Maryville) and Rep. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), seeks to "recognize students' rights to academic freedom and rights to freedom from discrimination on the basis of political or religious beliefs."

The bill also seeks to "develop, monitor and enforce a statewide institutional grievance procedure" by which any student attending a state-sponsored university may seek redress for any alleged violations of the rights specified by the bill.

Senate Bill 1117/House Bill 432 lists these rights as:

  • the right to expect that their academic freedom will not be infringed upon by instructors who create a hostile environment toward their political or religious beliefs or who introduce controversial matter into the classroom or course work that is substantially unrelated to the subject of study;
  • the right to expect that they will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects they study and that they shall not be discriminated against on the basis of their political or religious beliefs;
  • the right to expect that their academic institutions shall distribute student fee funds on a viewpoint-neutral basis and shall maintain a posture of neutrality with respect to substantive political or religious disagreements, differences, and opinions; and
  • the right to be fully informed of their institutions' grievance procedures for violations of academic freedom by means of notices prominently displayed in course catalogues, student handbooks, and on the institutional web site.
    The reaction from faculty members has been less than positive.

"The teacher who avoids mentioning Charles Darwin in a science class hurts his students," said Dr. Daniel Pigg, professor of English and president of the Faculty Senate.

Pigg also pointed out that such a bill would effectively ban using the Socratic method of teaching. "Sometimes professors say things just to shock students. That's been part of learning for a long time."

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Dr. Tom Rakes thinks the bill would prove redundant.

"It appears to me that our campus already has ample procedures and guidelines in place to ensure not only academic freedom but protection for both students and faculty," Rakes said.

However, the idea of such an "academic bill of rights" has received a warm reception from some students.

"It sounds good to me," said Jonathan Coble, a freshman computer science major from Humboldt. "I don't think they should discriminate on grades."

Others support the bill in theory, but are concerned about limitations such a bill could put on professors' speech.

"I think it could restrict [professors] some, but there's still other stuff they could talk about," said Ethan Porter, a sophomore accounting major from Cordova.