The Fight for Real Diversity · 17 December 2003

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Jessica Peck Corry--Denver Post, 12/18/03

There is a conspiracy on our college campuses. In after-school meetings and in open cafeterias, students and community organizations are working to bring respect and tolerance for intellectual diversity to Colorado's college campuses. What a scandal.

Ivory tower defenders of "business as usual" and their media allies say that instances of ideological or intellectual discrimination are isolated or blown out of proportion. Tell that to students at Colorado's 29 public colleges and universities.

Students representing these institutions will come together today in Denver to dispel what they consider to be an unfair characterization of the effort to address intellectual and ideological discrimination on our campuses. "People say this is about affirmative action for conservatives," said Antonia Gaona, a senior at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It couldn't be further from that. We simply want to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect our right to fair treatment on campus."

Gaona, who has a diverse set of political views and is thus hesitant to be pigeonholed as a conservative, is one of nearly two dozen students who will testify at the state Capitol between 10 a.m. and noon in room 356. The hearing, organized by Senate President John Andrews, a Centennial Republican, will give students from across the state the opportunity to tell lawmakers their stories.

Of course, there are the skeptics. In the debate over the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, supporters say it's designed to address discrimination in the classroom, while opponents argue that there isn't the evidence necessary to demand major changes at our taxpayer-funded institutions of higher education. They also say that the state legislature shouldn't be the place to resolve such concerns - based on the notions that faculty should police themselves, and that the voters and taxpayers who fund these institutions should be excluded from the dialogue.

On the first point, Gaona says, there is a very good reason for this lack of evidence - specifically that universities have largely failed to create legitimate avenues for students to voice complaints of intellectual or ideological discrimination. The universities, like ostriches with their heads in the sand, do not want to hear legitimate criticism of themselves.

At the University of Colorado, she explains, students alleging such bigotry have nowhere to go within the university to have their stories recorded. During the last school year, Gaona and fellow student Kirk Hamm requested funding for their student group, Students for A Better America, specifically to bring Dinesh D'Souza, an outspoken conservative and author of the controversial book "Illiberal Education" to campus. The students' funding request was denied - twice. The reason, they allege, was political: The university, they believe, didn't want to fund a speaker with which it disagreed. The students complained to CU's vice chancellor, whose response, they contend, was far from adequate. "Instead of addressing the real issue of discrimination, the university gave us money to keep us quiet," Gaona says. The students took their concerns a step further, and filed a formal complaint. Yet after completing the university's Bias Motivated Incident Form (found on an obscure university Web page), they discovered that the person in charge of overseeing discrimination matters, CU's dean of students, had never heard of the form.

Hamm says they were laughed out of the dean's office, being told that conservatives couldn't be victims of discrimination because they "have all the power in our society."

So if our public universities don't place a high priority on this type of discrimination, and if officials aren't bothering to do their jobs or collect legitimate data, how is the public supposed to find out what the status of ideological discrimination really is on our campuses?

Because of our universities' willful failure to collect adequate statistics, we are left with anecdotes like the one above. We now face a choice: Ignore students like Antonia and Kirk because universities aren't willing to implement the structures necessary to give these students a voice, or instead listen to them and work to address inequity - even if it's only only one student at a time. Maybe we'll get to the end and realize that there really isn't a widespread problem, but isn't it worth taking the time to make sure?

As the guardian of our public education system, the state legislature has a responsibility to ensure that all students - regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs - are treated fairly on campus. If our universities aren't guaranteeing fair treatment of all students, the legislature must work actively to see that all allegations of discrimination are recorded and properly addressed.

Jessica Peck Corry (jessica@i2i.org) ) is the director of the Campus Accountability Project, a higher education policy center housed at the Independence Institute in Golden.