Academic Bill of Rights Questioned · 26 March 2006

By Olivia Rosane - Columbia Daily Spectator

By Olivia Rosane--Columbia Daily Spectator--03/23/06

(U-WIRE) NEW YORK -- The debate about intimidation and bias in university classrooms, brought to national attention last spring by a controversy in Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department, has begun to move from special interest groups to state legislatures.

If passed, the New York bills would amend state education law to include an academic bill of rights which stipulates, among other things, that students have the right to be provided with a variety of viewpoints in the classroom, to avoid controversial material in class unrelated to the subject being studied, and to receive grades based on academic merit, not on political or religious beliefs. The bills would also state that no tenure decisions be based on the professor's political or religious affiliations.

This past winter, academic bills of rights were introduced to the New York State Senate and Assembly, echoing similar legislation across the country. One such bill was struck down by the South Dakota State Senate in February, and legislation was passed in the Pennsylvania House in July that established ongoing hearings investigating academic freedom in Pennsylvania state universities.

According to Joe Burnes, council to State Senator John DeFrancisco who helped introduce the bill in Albany, DeFrancisco supported the legislation because he saw a left-wing bias on college campuses.

"He thinks that the bill, if enacted to law, would begin to strike a balance and make sure that all points of view are accepted and tolerated," Burnes said.

But not everyone in New York State agrees that the bill's effects would be positive.

"The so-called academic bill of rights is really a misnomer," said Denise Duncan Lacey, director of communications for United University Professors, a subset of New York United Teachers that opposes the legislation. "Those kinds of measures are more like gag orders on the faculty," she said. "Rather than protecting anyone what they're doing is threatening free speech in the classroom."

She also mentioned that the State University of New York's Academic Standard Committee voted five to zero on March 16 that SUNY not recommend a bill of rights.

New York's efforts have been applauded by Students for Academic Freedom, the group started by conservative Columbia alumnus David Horowitz that has led to the push for such legislation.

Yet the SAF campaign has drawn concern from some, including Columbia journalism professor Todd Gitlin.

"I don't think the state legislature has any business policing professor's activity," he said.

According to SAF National Campus Director Sara Dogan, the organization's original aim was to get universities themselves to adapt academic bills of rights, but the schools have been reluctant to do so.

"We've had to resort to legislation, and we've seen it work," she said, citing cases in Ohio and Colorado where state universities adapted bills of rights after their legislatures introduced them.

But Gitlin has other problems with the organization.

"The campaign to get the academic bill of rights passed is a crackpot right-wing campaign based on ... outright lies," he said, echoing widespread concerns that the academic bill of rights movement is simply a veiled attempt to increase the conservative presence on university campuses. He also mentioned that when he looked into the student complaints of classroom bias publicized by SAF, he found that many were exaggerated.

Dogan said that SAF was "not a partisan campaign," adding that most case studies on the SAF Web site involved liberal professors simply because most college professors are liberal. She held up an incident which SAF had "come out strongly against" a case in which a pro-life professor tried to force his views on students.