Mesa State Students Probe Incidents of Political Pressure by Professors · 26 October 2003

Mesa State Students Probe Incidents of Political Pressure by Professors

By Erin McIntyre, The Daily Sentinel, 10/19

Students who avoid taking classes from professors with reputations for getting on soapboxes and those who feel teachers warp their grading according to students' political leanings say the controversial "Academic Bill of Rights" might have a point.

Although many students don't care for the bill's author, former liberal-turned-conservative activist David Horowitz, they say his proposal dictating students and faculty should be judged on their merits - not on their political beliefs - could be necessary.

Colorado is quickly becoming a battleground for Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights, a proposal mandating an open forum of ideas on college campuses.

The proposal, designed to encourage an atmosphere of intellectual diversity on campuses, states that no person can be hired, fired or graded on their personal beliefs or their religious or political affiliations.

Horowitz believes campuses indoctrinate students with liberal ideas and punish students and faculty members who do not subscribe to liberal beliefs.

Horowitz has focused on more prominent liberal-arts colleges and Ivy League schools, but after his visit to Mesa State College, some local students say there's a need for reform in western Colorado.

Politically slanted cartoons plastered on faculty office doors don't encourage some students to talk with professors during their office hours, said Tom Keller, president of the Mesa State College Young Republicans, which sponsored Horowitz's visit to campus.

In-your-face political propaganda, such as anti-Bush clippings or a life-size poster of Karl Marx, don't provide a welcoming environment for a conservative student, he said.

"If somebody hung a white hood outside their door, there's no way a black student would go in there. It's the same kind of thing."

Keller said he has dropped classes or refused to take classes from certain professors because he believed they judged him for his political beliefs or because of their reputations for using classes to indoctrinate students.

Keller said one example of his experience with this was in Professor Elaine Rodriguez's state and local government class two years ago. Rodriguez no longer teaches at Mesa State.

Rodriguez made her students take a test showing their political affiliations during the first week of her state and local government class, Keller said.

"She asked everybody in the class to write their names on it and turn it in," he said. "I never understood why it was important for her."

Rodriguez, reached at her office at Northeastern Illinois University, said the quiz was a Web-based exercise that was part of the textbook she used.

The students answer the series of questions, which are related to how they prioritize freedom, order and equality. At the end of the test, it plots them on a grid of liberals, communitarians, libertarians and conservatives.

"It just gives people an idea of where the whole class is regarding these ideas," Rodriguez said. "It's not used as a way to gauge if I have a liberal class or conservative class."

While Keller said he was required to put his name on his grid and turn it in, Rodriguez said she doesn't remember that.

"I don't recall," she said. "If I used it, it was just for extra credit means."

"We have no way of knowing if she graded according (to ideology)," Keller said.

"If I recall ... (Keller) got A's in my classes," Rodriguez said, laughing. "Come on, I don't even think there was a complaint there. I think he was a Republican."

Another student, Josh Gilder, said Rodriguez told students to keep their opinions out of her class, and then only taught one side of controversial issues, such as feminism or minority politics.

Rodriguez said she welcomed other opinions and that controversial topics are her specialty.

"Of course, we're human, and I don't know if you'd call them biases ... but when you hire a professor to teach in a classroom, you're hiring professors because they have a specialty in certain areas," she said.

"I select Latinas and (minority) representation because that's what I enjoy," she said. "That's what I bring to the classroom."

Rodriguez said she thought students limited the forum in her classes.

"I felt like I was silenced ... by the students in regard to bringing up any issues on race, ethnicity and to a certain extent, gender," she said. "It's so conservative there (Mesa State). I'm just happy that I'm in Chicago."

April Goggans, a pre-med major at Mesa State, said she hasn't encountered any problems with professors.

"I've never had a professor ramming his ideology down my throat," she said. "Then again, I'm not majoring in the humanities and social sciences."

Horowitz and some students say the "soft" sciences such as history, English, political science and journalism are more prone to this problem than biology or math because there's absolutely a right answer in those classes.

Gilder said he doesn't think the "hard" sciences are exempt. He asked to leave the professors unnamed in the experiences he related, because he might have to take classes from them again.

"Last spring I had a math professor who was a sweet lady, a pretty good teacher, but she stood up there and told us she didn't agree with the war in Iraq," said Gilder, a biology major and vice president of the Young Republicans. "I didn't understand how that belonged in a math class."

"That's unacceptable," said Steve Murray, a Mesa State physical education professor. "My students can tell where I stand on things - I'm a professor, I'm paid to have an opinion - but I will allow anyone the chance to present something and defend it."

In one of Gilder's general psychology classes, a professor was covering information on mood-altering drugs and stated his opinion that society should legalize marijuana.

"I thought, 'I should say something,' and then I realized, 'No, this is the type of guy that would single you out,' " Gilder said.

"Teachers hold all the cards. Students have none," Keller said.

The trick to surviving college, Keller and others say, isn't gaining knowledge. It's the ability to figure out professors' beliefs and act accordingly.

"Sometimes I think it's just a game where you try to impress your professor instead of learning anything," Keller said.

Jennifer Hensel, Mesa State student body president, and Joe Mulcahy, student government director of external affairs, agree.

Mulcahy said he spent his entire freshman year figuring out his professors' politics.

College isn't always about learning anymore, Hensel said.

"You learn how to manage the system," she said. "You can pick a professor, and I can tell you how to write the paper."

Before Horowitz visited Mesa State on Oct. 2, Hensel didn't think there was a problem for the Academic Bill of Rights to address.

The more she thought about it, she realized she has experienced incidents that should be addressed at Mesa State.

"I know people who refuse to take certain professors because they know they'll have to put up with one ideology ... it's not going to be about learning, it's going to be about feminism or the Green Party," she said.

Hensel has had classes in which professors have commented on how President Bush was an idiot, or how the U.S. shouldn't be in Iraq. Sometimes the class turns into a political rally instead of a learning environment, she said.

Even politically savvy students such as Hensel keep their mouths shut and take it.

Because the professor starts or participates in these politically motivated "rallies," students with different viewpoints just wait until it ends, she said.

In these classrooms, they're not consumers paying for a higher education; they're prisoners doing time until they get their grades and their diplomas, students say.

Mesa State's student government is investigating how many incidents such as these exist.

The Colorado Student Association, a lobbying organization for college students, has not taken a position on Horowitz's proposal. Although members discussed the Academic Bill of Rights at Mesa State on Saturday, they said it was premature to take a position on rumored legislation that hasn't been introduced yet.

"Right now, we're saying the individual institutions should maintain control of issues of ideological freedom," said Ryan McMaken, executive director of the association.

"I predict there will be a bill," he said. "And we will be able to develop a position on it at that time."

Although most of the news coverage about the Academic Bill of Rights has focused on its creator, McMaken said some students believe there is a basis for the proposal in Colorado.

"It's not like this bill just came out of nowhere," he said.

In the meantime, officials say there's already a grievance process for students to follow at the college, outlined in their student handbooks.

"Don't run away," Mesa State Interim President Sam Gingerich said. "Say something to someone who's in a position to do something about it.

"If some of the things that I've heard about here have happened, like teachers asking political affiliations, we need to talk about that," Gingerich said. "Students need to feel like they can stand up and say this is what is going on."

Some students say the handbook process of going to the chairman of the department and on to higher administration isn't well-known or advertised. They also say the culture of higher education doesn't give that process fairness or accuracy - it's like a fox watching the chicken coop.

"How do I know that the chair of the department and my professor aren't best friends?" asked Hensel. "How do I know that the vice president of academic affairs isn't going to side with my professor because they're buddies?"

Murray said that shouldn't matter - professors should be able to remove themselves from personal ideologies or relationships and do their jobs.

"If they can't do that, they should be removed," he said.

The faculty handbook states a professor has a responsibility to "encourage the free pursuit of learning by students, protect their academic freedom and adhere to a professional's proper role as an intellectual guide."

Mesa State also has a policy endorsing the principle of academic freedom, defining it as "freedom to discuss academic subjects fully, freedom to engage in research and to publish the results of research, and freedom to write or speak as citizens without fear of institutional censorship."

"I think the time is just about right for some sort of formal affair," said Russ Walker, environmental science professor and faculty Senate president. "I'm sure it's not as bad as the students fear it is ... but given human nature, I'm not sure I can say there are zero occurrences (of this problem).

"I don't believe there are any personal agendas afoot to brainwash students," Walker said.

"There is no pervasive problem," political science Professor John Redifer said. "Is it not a problem at all? I think it would be foolish to say that."

{M4Erin McIntyre can be reached via e-mail at emcintyre@gjds.com