The Pennsylvania House Considers Academic Freedom · 09 November 2005

The Pennsylvania House Considers Academic Freedom

By Stephen H. Balch--National Association of Scholars--11/10/05

In a two-and-a-half-hour session before a select committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives today at the University of Pittsburgh, NAS President Stephen H. Balch laid out the case for policies that increase intellectual pluralism, curb political advocacy, and promote traditional academic standards within the Commonwealth's public university systems. Here is the text of Dr. Balch's remarks, and here is the executive summary. Both are PDF files.

Citing evidence from several national surveys of professorial opinion, and a study of political giving among Pennsylvania public university faculty, Dr. Balch documented huge ideological asymmetries favoring the liberal-left over the conservative-right.

Dr. Balch then proceeded to demonstrate the existence of an institutional culture at Penn State, Pitt, and Temple, and among the campuses of the state university system, that permits liberal-left advocacy and activism to flourish openly -- as evidenced by the very mission statements of university departments and programs. This turns education into indoctrination.

Citing the language used by university programs in social work, education, cultural studies and women's studies, as well as various other public affairs and student life programs, Dr. Balch showed that they made no bones about their political purposes. The boldness of these declarations, and the fact that they are issued without rebuke from senior university administration, strongly suggests that they are just the tip of an iceberg of widespread and similar, but less visible, practices. Indeed, in one case, that of California State University of Pennsylvania, political advocacy came directly from the president's office.

Dr. Balch showed how these practices were at variance with the ideals of liberal education embraced by leading American higher education organizations. Quoting from their statements, he demonstrated that the central purpose of higher education is to open minds, present a range of serious viewpoints, and cultivate independence of thought, rather than pursuing advocacy's goal of conversion. By embracing advocacy on a whole range of controversial political, cultural, and social issues, the state's public universities are subverting their central educational purpose, and engaging in activities that have no warrant in their prescribed missions.

Dr. Balch then noted the many leading academic associations that had declared intellectual pluralism to be a central principle of American higher education, on a par with academic freedom. These included the American Council on Education, America's foremost higher education group, and the American Association of University Professors.

Dr. Balch argued that the inappropriate immersion of the state universities in advocacy and activism was in large measure attributable to ideological imbalances within them, leading to a lack of the countervailing opinion that serves to keep institutions intellectually open and honest. Dr. Balch pointed out the striking incongruity of the vigorous, ongoing, efforts made by Pennsylvania's state universities on behalf of every sort of diversity except the intellectual variety -- the kind genuinely crucial to the university's mission.

Dr. Balch emphasized that academic freedom has from the outset been predicated on corollary obligations. Citing the AAUP's founding document, its 1915 Declaration of Principles, he noted that these obligations involved a scholar's work being conducted "in the temper of a scientific inquirer" and his conclusions being gained as "the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry". This means scholarly activity carried out with rigor, care, and open-mindedness, instead of in a spirit of advocacy and activism.

Dr. Balch observed that the extraordinary immunities from legislative oversight normally granted to universities are based on this quid pro quo -- essentially a contractual understanding. Thus while the legislature should avoid involving itself in the administration of the state's universities, its due diligence very much requires taking care that the corollary obligations of academic freedom are understood and enforced by university authorities. Alluding to the evidence he had already brought forward, Dr. Balch contended that there was every reason to believe that there was currently a deficiency in both understanding and enforcement.

Dr. Balch recommended that the legislature should clearly communicate to the state's public universities that they must address the problem of intellectual diversity with the same vigor with which they already address what they take to be a lack of ethnic and gender diversity, developing their own creative solutions. The universities must also be put on notice that advocacy and activism are not legitimate parts of their missions, and that returning to a genuine sense of academic purpose and intellectual principle must become major institutional concerns. Finally, the hiring process for administrators and faculty must more significantly involve the consideration of candidates' commitment to intellectual standards and reasoned discourse.

The legislature, Dr. Balch concluded, must expect a full accounting of progress made toward these goals. If good faith efforts are not forthcoming, the legislature should press for new university leadership that is prepared to undertake them. As a last resort, it might consider a comprehensive overhaul of institutional arrangements so as to better meet the obligations that accompany academic freedom.

The National Association of Scholars is America's foremost higher education reform group. Located in Princeton, it has forty-six state affiliates and more than four thousand professors, graduate students, administrators, and trustees as members.
Stephen H. Balch is the president of the National Association of Scholars.