Students Press for Rights List at University of Kentucky · 24 July 2006

Filed under: Kentucky

Most demands already on books


By Mark Pitsch--The Louisville Courier-Journal--07/24/06

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Michael Marchman and two fellow University of Kentucky geography teaching assistants were so upset over the Iraq war that they decided they couldn't teach it as "morally neutral."

They began an online campaign in April and wrote a letter to the local newspaper urging other UK teachers to present the war as "a gross injustice and a criminal act."

Marchman said the goal wasn't to intimidate students from expressing different views in the classroom.

Not all agree.

This incident helped push some UK Student Government Association leaders to propose a Student Bill of Rights, which they say would protect students from vindictive teachers.

The 10-point plan declares that professors can't use their courses for "cultural, political, ideological, religious or antireligious indoctrination" and that students have the right to freedom of expression in the classroom.

"We're here to ensure the academic freedoms for students at the public universities in the state of Kentucky. We want students to know what their rights are," said Matthew Ballard, co-chairman of the UK Student Lobbyist Corps, a new SGA-appointed group designed to get students more involved in state government.

Possible legislation

The lobbyist corps wants the General Assembly to make the bill of rights state law, and it hopes the legislature will consider the measure next year, Ballard said.

Similar legislation has been proposed in 20 states but no laws have been passed, according to Students for Academic Freedom, a program of the David Horowitz Freedom Center in Los Angeles.

Ballard said he has talked to center representatives, but he believes the UK students have a better chance because they have not aligned themselves with the conservative Horowitz, a leading higher-education critic.

They are seeking bipartisan student support at UK and at other universities in the state, and they are working to get UK administrators and trustees to endorse the bill of rights, Ballard said.

Darrell Messer, the University of Louisville's student government president, said he supports the idea but expects the document to be revised to state explicitly that the bill of rights isn't intended to infringe on the academic freedom of faculty.

State Senate Republican staff officials have been briefed on the proposal, which is under review, said Lourdes Báez-Schrader, a spokeswoman for Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.

A spokesman for House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said House Democrats are not aware of the proposal.

The chairmen of the House and Senate education committees also said they aren't aware of the plan.

Philipp Kraemer, associate provost for undergraduate education at UK, called the 10 articles in the bill of rights "sensible education policies," and he praised the students for taking responsibility for their education.

But he said existing school regulations already require that UK students be allowed to express their views in class, to be graded solely on their work, and to appeal to the academic ombudsman if they believe they have been discriminated against in class.

"It's kind of like the solution waiting for a problem," Kraemer said of the bill of rights.

Kraemer said that in the seven years he has been associate provost, he's not aware of any student's complaining about not being able to express views in class or about receiving a lower grade for disagreeing with a professor's views.

And he said he's not received word that any professor has tried to get students to think a certain way.

Is there a problem?

In 2005-06, UK's academic ombudsman's office, which handles student complaints, received 820 student inquiries, including 309 formal complaints. Of the complaints, eight were about "discrimination" and 103 were about "grades," according to the office.

The office doesn't further detail the complaints.

Kaveh Tagavi, a mechanical engineering professor who was the ombudsman last year, said none of the complaints had to do with discrimination or lower grades because of a student's religious or political views.

One student from the Middle East said a professor discriminated against him, but an informal review revealed scant evidence and the student never filed a formal complaint, Tagavi said.

Ballard, 21, a senior economics major from Bardstown, and other student leaders couldn't point to specific instances in which students were prevented from expressing an opinion in class, were graded poorly because of their beliefs, or complained of "indoctrination" by a professor.

"We do not feel it's a major issue now," Ballard said. "We feel we need to take action before it becomes a major issue."

Ballard also acknowledged that much of the bill's 10 articles are contained in various UK regulations. But he said the bill coordinates a statement of student rights into a single, easily accessible document for students and parents.

Unintended consequences

Although the bill of rights doesn't expressly say it, the document should make sure that professors present all sides of controversial issues because it would prohibit "indoctrination," Ballard said.

Marchman said such a provision could have unfortunate consequences, such as forcing professors to give equal weight to unequal positions.

For example, Marchman asked whether racial segregationists should be given as much credibility as Martin Luther King Jr. when teaching about the civil-rights movement.

"It does create a certain form of intimidation, intended or not, about what teachers can say in the classroom without getting themselves in trouble," Marchman said.

He acknowledged that some students in the geography class he taught last spring about the lands and peoples of non-Western countries didn't appreciate him discussing his personal views of the Iraq war.

But he said most told him in course evaluations that knowing his opinion contributed to class debate and that no one felt that they couldn't speak out.

Reporter Mark Pitsch can be reached at (502) 875-5136.