New York Academia vs. the Academic Bill of Rights · 22 January 2006

By C. de Russy and M. Langbert and P. Orenstein -
Filed under: New York, Press Coverage

By C. de Russy and M. Langbert and P.

In New York State the political movers, shakers and hangers-on dance to the same tune, and as the tune changes so does the choreography. Except for the fringe Conservative and Libertarian Parties, the political scene here ranges from a right wing flanked by liberal Republicans to a left wing flanked by radical Democrats such as New York City Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and advocate of open admissions in universities. Candace de Russy, a trustee of the State University of New York and academic reformer, expected a contest when she took up the cause of the Academic Bill of Rights (ABR) at SUNY - as did Mitchell Langbert and Phil Orenstein, professors at the City University of New York, when they began to lobby Albany for the ABR.

Given the politics here, it is natural that the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and its two local affiliates, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) at CUNY and the United University Professions (UUP) at SUNY, keep up a collectivist beat. They even have a foreign policy theme to which they dedicate their resources. To advance it, the PSC has made donations for the defense of Sami Al-Arian, who was acquitted on seventeen of the terrorism charges against him, with the jury deadlocked on the rest. At the same time the PSC refused to support the tenure grievance of CUNY Professor Robert David (K.C.) Johnson, a distinguished historian who had been denied a promotion on grounds of being insufficiently "collegial." The genesis of this charge was political discrimination: Johnson's moderate Democratic political views were out of line in New York's higher education dance.

Scheuerman & Co. Do the Quickstep

A breakthrough took place in December 2002, when David Horowitz, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, met with Thomas Egan, chairman of the SUNY Board; Provost Peter Salins; Vice-Provost Donald Steven; and de Russy, to discuss indoctrination on SUNY's campuses. In the course of this meeting Horowitz conceived of the Academic Bill of Rights (ABR), which he crafted on the basis of the American Association of University Professors' (AAUP's) own statements about academic freedom. The Bill exhorts public universities to foster a pluralism of views and to prevent discrimination on the basis of political belief.

In January 2005, at a board of trustees meeting, de Russy proposed that SUNY adopt the ABR. Shortly after, Chairman Egan stated that "I am fully supportive of assuring a robust climate of academic freedom and intellectual diversity," adding that proposals such as the ABR "deserve serious consideration." The board then referred the proposal for consideration to its Academic Standards and Student Life Committees - the former chaired by Trustee (the Reverend) John Cremins and the latter by Trustee Pamela Jacobs Vogt (who has since resigned from the Board).

By April 2005, William Scheuerman, president of the UUP (and vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT), had commenced a refrain of distortion and denial, calling the ABR proposal at SUNY "crazy," "Orwellian," and "McCarthyite," and claiming that the ABR would encourage Holocaust denial - a strident motif that Joseph Hildreth, president of the SUNY Faculty Senate, soon repeated. Scheuerman also called a similar statement on academic rights and responsibilities that the American Council on Education (ACE) put forth "an appeasement document."

That same month, the NYSUT assembly unanimously voted to condemn the ABR. In October, the SUNY Student Assembly, which represents all of the 413,000 SUNY students, also rejected the ABR. Its president, Josh Hyman, opined that the "ABR could easily put a lid on all student organizing," apparently oblivious to the ABR's actual language, which includes the proposition that "selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers' programs and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism" - thus seeking to protect the rights of students of all persuasions. "I will throw my body," Hyman added in accelerating cadence, "and the weight of students in front of this resolution."

Dick Iannuzzi, NYSUT's president, kept up the tempo in a May 25, 2005 editorial in which he called the ABR "an orchestrated and dangerous attack on academic freedom and a serious threat to the lives [sic] of our colleagues in higher education." Iannuzzi called Horowitz an "ideologue" and the de Russy proposal "far right." He added that "this so-called bill of rights would provide a forum for right-wing politicians and others who seek to impose a political agenda in the classroom."

By October Scheuerman added variations on the theme, calling the ABR part of an "extremist right-wing movement" and "a solution in search of a problem."

The Fred Floss Hustle

In a December AFT news bulletin, entitled "Guarding Against the Wrong 'Bill of Rights,'" Fred Floss, co-vice president of both the UUP and AFT, added another variation, describing a SUNY poll which he said found - zero - formal complaints from SUNY's near half-million students regarding persecution for their political views. Floss sought to reinforce his position by claiming that "Not only do we not have any problems, but we also have a mechanism if we had problems to make sure this is all taken care of." Joining in, Thomas Kriger, assistant president of the UUP, informed Langbert in an e-mail that the SUNY's vice-chancellor for student life, Edward Englebride, had "contacted people on SUNY campuses across the state and found not one instance of students filing a complaint" of discrimination on the basis of their political views.

In contrast, de Russy had pointed out at the January 2005 trustees' meeting that there had been no comprehensive report on procedures for addressing the kinds of grievances with which the ABR is concerned.

SUNY Press Secretary David Henahan gave a different rendition of Floss's story. He contradicted the Floss/Kriger/Englebride account by stating to Langbert that Marti Anne Ellermann, SUNY's senior managing campus counsel, had in fact surveyed only a "classroom-sized" sample of students rather than a SUNY-wide sample. When Ellermann, who presumably is not an expert in polling, did not respond to Langbert's inquiries about her polling methodology and documentation of what Floss had publicly called "a poll," de Russy requested clarification on the matter from University Counsel Andrew Edwards, who responded that there had been "no formal …'survey' or 'poll' by [his] office as those terms are customarily understood."

The NYSUT Tango

During this period, Orenstein wrote letters to the NYSUT newspaper to support the ABR, but his letters went unpublished except for an allusion to his position in a NYSUT editorial. Orenstein noted that NYSUT's refusal to publish his letters amounted to the very kind of suppression that the ABR aims to counter and that NYSUT claims does not exist.

Recognizing that communication with NYSUT was achieving nothing, Orenstein and Langbert launched a campaign to bring the ABR to the attention of New York State legislators. Orenstein began by meeting with State Senator Frank Padavan (R) of Queens. In meeting with Padavan he brought along a recent St. John's University graduate from Queens, William Horowitz, who had been given a "D" by an international relations professor because Horowitz had criticized the United Nations and said that he liked Rush Limbaugh. Horowitz's "D" in that class has prevented his admission to graduate school.

Padavan expressed interest in the ABR and, pursuant to the meeting, passed the idea along to the higher education committee, chaired by State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R).

To further emphasize the need for the ABR, during the following summer Orenstein, Langbert and William Horowitz traveled to Albany to meet with John D'Agati, LaValle's aide. D'Agati suggested that Langbert and Orenstein draft a version of the ABR that he could show to the faculty unions and State Senate for their consideration. Langbert and Orenstein also met with aides of several Assembly Democrats, learning that Democrats as well as Republicans can be supportive of the ABR.

In proposing a bill, Orenstein and Langbert based their version on a U.S. Congressional ABR resolution, House Resolution 609 (a section of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act called "Student Speech and Assembly Rights"), Pennsylvania House Resolution 177, and several other bills. In an effort to forestall union opposition they decided to draft compromise legislation and not to call it the "Academic Bill of Rights" but rather the "New York State Resolution for Academic Freedom." Their proposed bill does not include any provisions for penalties, review boards, external investigative bodies or external complaint procedures. Langbert and Orenstein's reasoning was that the unions had already reacted heatedly to the name ABR, and so a different name and mild approach might alleviate their concerns. In the preface they selected references to intellectual diversity rights in the AAUP's own statements. The aim was to facilitate negotiation with the faculty unions.

Unions had mounted media campaigns in other states, and Langbert and Orenstein expected the same from NYSUT. Once the bill had been circulated in the Senate, Langbert informed all of the state senators that he and Orenstein would be willing to draft a version of the ABR taken entirely from AAUP statements and declarations, if that would satisfy the faculty unions.

They also met with Richard Brownell, the vice president of the New York Young Republicans, and Mike Salomon, the president of the New York College Republicans, both of whom were supportive. Then, Orenstein spoke at several colleges and at local Republican Clubs. In these meetings, participants offered examples of political bias and suppression in New York's colleges. One example involved a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College who allegedly used his classroom as a podium to curse President Bush before Election Day. An English professor at Pace University allegedly used his course as a forum for semester-long proselytizing about his 9/11 conspiracy theories. Another professor allegedly sent a two-page e-mail to, and hurled invective in class at, a student because he disagreed with him about President Bush. In the course of these meetings Orenstein deflected several left-wing students' attempts to obstruct the discussion. Conversely, several pro-ABR students offered to document their experiences.

Orenstein and Langbert then prepared letter templates so that the New York College Republicans and their parents could send letters to their state senators and assemblymen.

The FCCC and AAUP Two-Step

Earlier in the year, SUNY faculty governance bodies and the AAUP had responded in sync to de Russy's calls for a forum on intellectual diversity.

Kimberley Reiser, president of the Faculty Council of Community Colleges, or FCCC (which represents the faculty at SUNY's thirty community colleges) first wrote to her delegates: "I fear that a forum would provide Candace [de Russy] and her right wing think tank cohorts the perfect opportunity to spin their message to the press" (emphasis added).

The FCCC then followed through with a series of resolutions urging the SUNY Board "not to adopt the proposed Academic Bill of Rights." In October, the FCCC put forth a resolution noting the UUP's claim that the ABR would cost seven million [sic] dollars per year to implement - overlooking Floss's claim that procedures to guarantee intellectual diversity rights already exist and Kriger's claim that no instance of suppression had ever occurred. By January 2006, twenty-seven community colleges had adopted resolutions opposing ABR, with the three remaining campuses not yet having made a decision.

For example, at Onondaga Community College, only one faculty member, Kevin Moore, voted in favor of the ABR. In an e-mail, Moore wrote that at the meeting where the ABR was discussed, he expressed his "concerns about the mere appearance of the entire faculty in SUNY failing to agree with a document which seems so fundamental." Despite Moore's arguments, NYSUT, UUP and the SUNY faculty senates continued to echo the same theme: "Holocaust deniers will have to have their say; intelligent design will have to be taught in biology." As Moore concluded, "reasoned argument had no impact in such an atmosphere."

Also in sync, at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) symposium Roger Bowen, general secretary of the AAUP, invoked might, declaring (with respect to de Russy's ABR proposal): "We'll see who has the most power." Bowen also drew a false moral equivalence between Ward Churchill (who compared 9/11 victims to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who carried out the Holocaust) and Horowitz (a defender of student and faculty rights). In a December commentary by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed, Bowen condemned both Horowitz and Churchill as conspiracy-minded "extremists." And in the December 2005 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Joan Scott, chair of the AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom, branded Horowitz's efforts "affirmative action for the conservative agenda."

The SUNY-Board and -Binghamton Merengue

To date SUNY's trustees have not broken step with the faculty unions' refusal to confront the questions that the ABR raises. The board has accepted empty claims that justice prevails on campuses and has lacked the will to forthrightly examine the validity of these assertions.

Meanwhile, the student newspaper at SUNY-Binghamton, Pipe Dream, reported in October that an "open forum on academic freedom" had been held at the university's science library to discuss ABR. The gist of the article was that faculty members Peter Knuepfer and Fa-ti Fan used the forum to discuss the relevance of intelligent design theory to biology courses and to promote the rejection of the ABR on SUNY campuses. According to Pipe Dream, Knuepfer and Fan did not invite any speaker who might disagree with them.

The one-sided Binghamton forum and the SUNY leadership's reluctance even to openly debate the issue of intellectual pluralism illustrate the plight of the post-modern university. Public support for universities is justified only if universities seek truth, but ideologues and bureaucrats intent on sustaining the status quo have co-opted universities, endangering truth-seeking while trustees avert their glances.

In November, the student editors of Pipe Dream published Langbert's letter wherein he offered a response to the claims made at the Binghamton forum.

Moreover, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein had joined the fray in October, defending academic freedom for students and administrators as well as faculty - a position taken by the Global Colloquium of University Presidents, of which he is a signatory.

Also heartening, Kermit Hall, president of SUNY-Albany, writing in the fall issue of The Presidency, acknowledged the charges made by the ABR's proponents and called upon higher education leaders to respond. In Hall's words: "Only when higher education is willing to address squarely the question of ... political imbalance in faculties… or the existence of an oppressive campus orthodoxy, will we command full legitimacy…Without honest answers, there is real reason to test Horowitz's claim for the … Bill of Rights."

In contrast, SUNY Chancellor John Ryan has taken no position on the matter, and Chairman Egan has been silent since his encouraging remarks in 2005.

Will Higher Ed Twist and Shout?

On January 9, 2006, ten Republican state senators, De Francisco, Golden, Johnson, Larkin, Maltese, Meier, Morahan, Padavan, Trunzo and Winner referred their proposed academic bill of rights, S6336, to the Committee on Higher Education. Unapologetically setting aside concerns about offending the faculty unions, they call the bill the Academic Bill of Rights. It states that students should be graded on the basis of their work; student fee money should be distributed fairly, and administrators should not infringe upon students' freedom of conscience. It also states that faculty should be hired, fired and promoted on the merits of their work and not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs. It requires that higher education institutions inform students of their rights and of the institution's grievance procedures for violations of academic freedom. It also requires the governing boards of higher education institutions to develop and publicize a grievance procedure for violations of academic freedom.

It states that students in the humanities, social sciences and the arts have the right to expect a learning environment in which they have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion and that all students have the right to be graded on the basis of reasoned answers. It holds that the quality of education should not be infringed upon by instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter that serves no pedagogical purpose.

The bill does not propose penalties or external review of universities of any kind. It is primarily exhortative. Undoubtedly, NYSUT, the AFT, the PSC and the UUP will leap to claim that S6336 is "crazy," "Orwellian," "McCarthyite" and the equivalent of "Holocaust denial."

Most recently, at SUNY, Trustee Cremins has pledged that the Academic Standards Committee will hold an open discussion of de Russy's ABR proposal as part of a debate on intellectual diversity, perhaps to commence in March 2006. As an alternative, de Russy has indicated to the Board her willingness to support the ACE statement. Her support for a resolution (on the ACE, ABR or similar documents) is contingent upon the adoption of implementation mechanisms.

Faculties should be leading the movement toward intellectual freedom rather than indulging in rancorous hyperbole about the threat that true academic freedom - freedom for all students and professors - poses. Given the dearth of honest leadership among the professoriate, the SUNY and CUNY boards of trustees could still lead their institutions to implement guidelines to restore integrity and academic freedom on campuses. But responsible leadership at the trustee level has so far failed to emerge as well. If faculty and board leadership fails, the State Legislature needs to pass the ABR or its equivalent. Freedom of expression must be restored to academic life. Our colleges and universities must celebrate intellectual diversity, not trample it.

But getting there won't be a cakewalk.

Candace de Russy is a writer and trustee of the State University of New York. Mitchell Langbert is associate professor of business at Brooklyn College. Phil Orenstein is a systems manager based in Queens and formerly an adjunct lecturer of Computer Aided Manufacturing at Queensborough Community College and Farmingdale State University.