Is it Teaching or is it Venting? · 23 June 2006

Pennsylvania, birthplace of our political liberties, is currently the setting for legislative hearings to advance the cause of intellectual freedom. To date, the Pennsylvania Subcommittee on Academic Freedom has held two sets of hearings - one at the University of Pittsburgh and another at Temple University.

The hearings were authorized by Pennsylvania House Resolution 177, which established a committee "to examine the academic atmosphere and the degree to which faculty have the opportunity to instruct and students have the opportunity to learn in an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth" at public colleges and universities in the state.

It is hard to see how anyone could object to such an inquiry, but professor unions and academic associations have protested, loudly. In a series of reckless attacks, these groups have distorted the committee's intentions and activities, while smearing anyone who thinks that there might be a problem of political abuse in schools.

In the course of five days of hearings, the committee has not mentioned the name of a single Pennsylvania professor. Nor has it questioned a single witness about the "anti-American speech" of any professor. Nor is the particular political viewpoint of professors a subject with which the committee is concerned. Yet such claims are repeated regularly in an attempt to discredit the committee.

The question before the committee is whether professors who are public officials, funded by taxpayers, are to be held accountable for their behavior in the classroom, and in particular whether they are to be held to professional standards. Full professors in public universities in Pennsylvania have lifetime jobs. They earn more than $100,000 a year plus a benefits package (medical care, pension, etc.) that many Pennsylvanians would feel privileged to enjoy. Why should they be less accountable for their professional behavior than Enron Corp. executives or SEPTA officials?

Thus far, the committee has heard witnesses testify that 16 of Pennsylvania's 18 public colleges and universities have "speech codes" that violate the First Amendment rights of students. It has heard testimony that Pennsylvania students are never informed by administrators of their academic-freedom rights.

In testimony before the committee, David Adamany, president of Temple, conceded that students at his school probably did not know it had an academic-freedom policy that bars professors from venting their hatred of George Bush or their opposition to the war in Iraq in their classrooms if the subject matter of the class is not related to the presidency or the war.

The head of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group supporting academic freedom, told the committee that her organization had conducted a survey that found that "a shocking 49 percent of the students at the top 50 colleges and universities say that their professors frequently injected political comments into their courses, even if they had nothing to do with the subject."

If students are not informed of their rights, they have no rights. If academic-freedom policies are not being enforced at Pennsylvania universities, then students at those universities have no academic freedom.

There is a reason Temple, Pennsylvania State University, and other schools have regulations that bar professors from venting their political beliefs in class when those beliefs are not relevant to the topic. The American Association of University Professors agreed long ago that the extraordinary privileges the public grants to professors are a quid pro quo for their professionalism in the classroom. Professors are hired to teach their expertise, not to preach their uninformed opinions.

We do not give tenure - lifetime jobs - to politicians. If professors want to be politicians, let them find another place to ply their trade and fewer captive audiences on whom to unload their prejudices. The Pennsylvania hearings are long overdue. It is appropriate and admirable that Pennsylvania legislators are finally looking into how the educational dollar of Pennsylvania's taxpayers is being spent. And that university administrators are being asked why they don't enforce the policies and regulations they have put on their books.

David Horowitz is the author of the Academic Bill of Rights being considered in several states.