Day One: Academic Freedom Hearings Hit Campus · 10 January 2006


State legislators began two-day hearings at Temple, concentrating on university policies that address political biases among professors and any need for corrective legislation.

By Brandon Lausch--The Temple News--01/10/06

President David Adamany said that Temple's "classrooms cannot be used as pulpits" and repeatedly defended the university's professors and its academic grievance policies Monday, Jan. 9, in testimony to the state legislature's Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education.

"We have reviewed our records and we do not find any instances in which students have complained about inappropriate intrusion of political advocacy by teachers in their courses," Adamany told legislators and a crowd of about 50 people who attended the public hearings, held in a 2d floor Student Center conference room. "Nor have we found instances of complaints by students that they were improperly graded because of the views they set forth in their courses."

The committee is holding hearings on Main Campus for two days as part of a statewide data-collecting tour to ensure that professors at public and state-related universities are promoting classroom debate and are grading solely on academic merit, not political persuasion. The committee was born from House Resolution 177, which was passed in July by 43 state representatives - 37 Republicans and six Democrats.

After its stop at Temple, the committee plans to hold at least two more hearings on campuses in central Pennsylvania before reporting its findings and any suggestions for corrective legislation to the legislature by a November 30 deadline. The committee so far has heard testimony in Harrisburg and at the University of Pittsburgh.

Though some professors have compared the committee's hearings to McCarthyism and a legislator on the panel itself has said the statewide tour is a "colossal waste of time" and a "solution in search of a problem," Adamany and others who testified Monday said the public discussions were valuable.

"I applaud your commitment to the central issue of student academic freedom," said Robert M. O'Neil, law professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, during his testimony. "We university professors too often act or sound as though we value academic freedom only for ourselves as scholars, overlooking the fact that we enjoy such protection mainly because we engage in the process of teaching and learning. It is most reassuring that you have made the campus experience of Pennsylvania students your central concern."

But the academics who testified, including Temple professors Rachael Blau DuPlessis and Jeff Solow, said that proposing any corrective legislation would be unnecessary. Solow read a statement for Jane Evans, Faculty Senate president, who is researching in Turkey.

Those who testified said existing grievance policies - that all universities are required to have - and professional standards are enough to guard against biases. Laws that would propose "balanced" curriculum would be subjective, O'Neil said, adding that universities cannot expect to offer "all options to all students."

"The practical problems posed by external supervision of such matters seem to me serious and daunting," O'Neil said.

Adamany, however, said Temple could improve its academic freedom and grievance policies in three ways: by better directing students to academic freedom guidelines, by informing students of their rights to appeal what they think is biased teaching, and by possibly synthesizing grievance policies that can vary among Temple's colleges.

"A student probably should not be required to master different sets of grievance procedures in order to assure his or her rights in different academic programs," Adamany said.

The only student scheduled to testify before the committee was Logan Fisher, a senior business major and vice-chairman of Temple's College Republicans. Fisher said professors have made him and friends of his feel awkward when voicing dissenting opinions during class. He read nearly a half-dozen anecdotes from anonymous students he said feared retribution for testifying, with most stories detailing professors degrading the Bush Administration, conservatives, or the Iraq war.

The committee also has a rule that all testifiers speak in generalities, barring anyone from naming specific professors or students unless they are given 48 hours notice to respond to on-the-record accusations.

Though Fisher said he believes his grades have been affected because of in-class comments he made challenging professors, he said neither he nor his friends have ever formally filed a complaint with the university.

"I have not lodged any formal complaints for the fact that I didn't think they would be handled at all," Fisher said.

To that, state Rep. Gib Armstrong (R., Lancaster), the chief sponsor of HR 177, said, "If students feel their rights are being abridged, they need to speak up. It's time students speak their minds or quit complaining."

UP NEXT

Tuesday, Jan. 10, is the second and final day of Temple's hearings. The first person to testify, beginning at 9 a.m., will be William E. Scheuerman, president of United University Professions at The State University of New York.

William W. Cutler III, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals and Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, will follow. Temple professor Stephen Zelnick's testimony is also scheduled, having been postponed from Monday.

The day will close with testimony from David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, followed by public comment scheduled for 1 p.m. Horowitz, a conservative activist, is widely regarded as the driving force behind academic freedom legislation.

Brandon Lausch can be reached at blausch@temple.edu .