Academic Rights for the Empire State? · 11 May 2006

By Fred Lucas -
Filed under: New York, Press Coverage

By Fred

New York state Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, a self described conservative Democrat from Glendale, recalls being penalized in college for having a different point of view from his professor at New York Institute on Technology.

"If a professor is there to shape your mind and teach reasoning and thinking, you're not going to get that from always hearing a one-sided view," Seminerio said. "A student who protests an anti-American professor should not find their marks or their grades in jeopardy."

Today, he thinks it's worse on college campuses. Protecting a college student from failing a course over their political point of view should not seem too radical, say supporters of legislation to enact a "Academic Bill of Rights," which Seminario is sponsoring. But opponents of the idea, which includes university faculty groups, fear it would lead to too much government intrusion in the classroom.

Last month, the State University of New York Board of Trustees rejected a conservative group's arguments that college campuses are intolerant to divergent political views and indoctrinate students. But the idea is still kicking in the state legislature.

"Once we pass it they will have to accept it," Seminerio said. "The overall reports that I get are from students who have professors that hate America."

The bill would prohibit a professor from the state's public colleges and universities from punishing a student for political, religious or other personal beliefs and require more than one side of an argument be presented in a classroom. It would also require professors to avoid controversial topics that are unrelated to class material; for instance a chemistry teacher would be cautioned not to talk about the war in Iraq.

The proposal has been considered in at least 16 states with little success from legislatures other than Pennsylvania, where the state House of Representatives voted last summer to investigate potential political intolerance in academia. Members of Congress are also debating whether to include parts of the concept in this year's reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

The threat of legislation in Colorado, Tennessee and Ohio prompted the state university systems there to adopt measures to ensure students would be graded entirely on merit, without regard to politics. The states also prevent faculty from being fired for their politics. However, these states did not adopt the entire concept.

The "Academic Bill of Rights" was introduced by conservative activist David Horowitz in 2001, and has gotten more attention in recent years. That's thanks to cases such as a University of Colorado professor insulting the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a Columbia University professor insulting the nation of Israel and a University of Kansas professor sending out an email insulting Christian students. Horowitz's Los Angeles-based group Students for Academic Freedom is the lead organization backing the measure.

"I can't imagine why anyone would be against this unless they had a point of view to promote," said New York state Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, who sponsors the companion bill in the Senate. "It's not the job of an educator to indoctrinate someone with only one point of view."

DeFrancisco expects the bill to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, but believes it could have problems in the state Assembly, controlled by the Democrats.

Opponents of the bill argue that isolated incidents don't amount to a systemic problem, thus doesn't require a legislative remedy. Far from protecting academic freedom, this proposal threatens it, said Duncan Lacy, spokeswoman for United University Professors, the largest college faculty organization in New York state.

"This is an attack on academic freedom by imposing constraints to require every point of view be presented," Lacy said. "In our analysis of the 29 SUNY campuses, we have not heard problems of a lack of academic freedom for students. New York has a grievance policy in place for students if they believe they are being treated unfairly."

The proposals in state legislatures across the country are a concern to academia largely because it is seen as a solution in search of a problem, said Jonathon Knight, director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors.

"This is overblown on the basis of a few anecdotes," Knight said. "It's not systematic. Higher education is not going to hell in a hand basket. If in fact there are problems in isolated incidents, there are mechanisms in place to handle it."

If it's not a problem now, DeFrancisco said, faculty shouldn't fear this bill.

"I would turn that around and say, 'then why are you against it,'" he said. "If alternative points of view are already protected, this will allow New York to continue its unblemished record."

Legislators should be cautious in politicizing higher education, said Kermit Hall, president of the University of Albany, in a written statement. However, he did say there was room for introspection.

"Only when higher education is willing to address squarely the question of whether there is a political imbalance in faculties, one sided course readings and campus speaking events, or the existence of an oppressive campus orthodoxy, will we command full legitimacy," Hall said.

It is a very real problem, said Brad Shipp, national field director for Students for Academic Freedom. He said the chilling effect on dialogue comes from current abuses. Though he could not provide direct contact information for students, he cited several cases.

In one case at Georgia Tech University, a professor flunked a student after he found out the student attended a conservative conference. In another case, a female student disagreed with her professor about abortion and was berated for trying to "ram your beliefs down my throat." He said most college grievance policies are inadequate.

"Time and time again students express a political belief or a religious belief and they are degraded and belittled," Shipp said. "A vast majority of professors do a wonderful job. But there is a vocal minority on the vast majority of campuses."