Academic Freedom Pledge to Circulate at Duke · 26 September 2005

By Iza Wojciechowska - Duke Chronicle

By Iza Wojciechowska--Duke Chronicle--09/26/05

The age-old debate about liberal bias in the classroom is being re-addressed by Duke's chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, which has a solution in mind to promote intellectual equality on campus.

The organization met last week to discuss and begin drafting the Academic Freedom Pledge. After the pledge is written, it will be presented to every professor in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences to evaluate and sign.

"Signing will basically affirm [the professors'] commitment to students' intellectual rights and guarantee that their classrooms will not be used as a place for promoting a partisan agenda and advancing their own political ideas," said junior Stephen Miller, president of Students for Academic Freedom.

After the distribution of the pledge, the group plans to analyze the results and compile a database delineating which professors signed and did not sign the pledge and which departments had the most and fewest signing faculty members.

The data will be made available to students online, providing them with a tool for scheduling classes and choosing professors who will "respect their rights in the classroom," Miller said.

Though he hails the project as an important step in enhancing the University's academics climate, Miller expects the pledge to be met with resistance from many professors. He cited the philosophy and cultural anthropology departments as examples of those in which he may encounter problems.

"I think we will be amazed at how many professors are going to take [the pledge], crumple it and throw it in the trash can," he said. "I do think there is going to be a really low level of compliance, but I'd love to be proven incorrect."

Michael Munger, chair of the political science department and faculty adviser for Students for Academic Freedom, said some faculty members might not agree to sign the pledge because they will not want to associate with an outside organization.

"Even if they agree with the principles, they don't want someone telling them what to teach," he said.

He added, however, that the movement itself might have an impact regardless of the number of signatures because it may spark interest and conversation on campus.

Miller said he started the pledge idea with two main goals in mind. He hopes to give students another method of evaluating professors before enrolling in classes, and after collecting the information, he aims to take it to the administration in hopes of eventually implementing an academic bill of rights.

"Instead of Duke being a rich marketplace of ideas, Duke is a one-sided hegemony," he said.

Senior John Korman, president of the Duke Conservative Union, said students' education should not be limited by the presentation of only one side of a debate. He added that he has heard reports of liberal bias in the classroom on several occasions.

"A diverse viewpoint is important because people need to evaluate views and decide which one they think is right-students need to decide for themselves," he said.

Liberally affiliated students on campus also agree about the need for academic freedom, but some consider the perception of a liberal bias on campus to be exaggerated.

"I think the issue at hand is that people overstate the bias the professors are bringing into the classroom from their personal beliefs," said sophomore Max Entman, vice president for external affairs of Duke Democrats. "It's true that there are professors who will give you a lower grade if you don't agree with their viewpoints, but some of those are conservative as well as liberal."

Junior Ben Abram, co-president of Duke Democrats, referred to the Bassett Affair of 1903 as an instance of Duke preserving academic freedom. John Spencer Bassett became a professor of history in Trinity College in 1893, and he resisted the administration's call for his resignation after his open-minded stance on a racial issue.

"I hope that [the Academic Freedom] Pledge, when it is released, will allow faculty members to affirm their commitments to say what they truly and professionally believe about the state of the world, in line with the tradition of John Spencer Bassett," Abram said.

Other organizations in the country are also aiming to promote a greater ideological balance on college campuses. The Center of the American Experiment, a Minneapolis-based group promoting conservative and free-market ideas, started a website called earlier this month to "help students respond to the intellectual imbalance on their campuses."

According to the website, 72 percent of faculty at American college campuses identify themselves as liberal. The website provides conservative views on issues in many academic fields and aims to supplement potential liberal bias students receive in class.

"I would say [the site] is going to make a difference, but the question is, 'How big?'" Miller said. "I don't think you're going to see some sort of revolution because of a new conservative website, but it's another brick in the wall for the good guys."

Miller said he hopes to eventually expand the pledge into a national program that professors at universities across the country could sign and students could access online.