Defending Academic Values · 12 July 2006

Filed under: Replies to Critics

By David Horowitz--Presidency Magazine--Spring 2006  

The Presidency is to be commended for publishing Kermit Hall's "A Cautionary Tale of Academic Rights and Responsibilities" (fall 2005), which addresses the issues raised in the Academic Bill of Rights, of which I am the author. President Hall is right that the legislative success of this bill is the result of a growing movement among conservatives generally, and Republican legislators in particular, for reform in the administration of our university system.

He also is right that it is important for administrators to address the various issues fueling this movement in order to protect the credibility of the academic community and insulate institutions of higher learning from irresponsible public attack. Those issues-which I define as a lack of intellectual diversity on faculties and in curricula, abusive use of the classroom for nonacademic agendas, and lack of equity in the distribution of student activities funds-are driving my call for reform.

An important step toward accomplishing these ends would be to stop treating the reform movement as adversarial to the core interests of the university, and to open a dialogue on the issues themselves. As a leader of this movement, let me assure the readers of this magazine that I share their interest in protecting the integrity of the academic enterprise. I think that any fair-minded reader of the Academic Bill of Rights will acknowledge that great care has been taken to preserve the independence of the university and respect its academic freedom traditions. My reform efforts are about restoring to the university the liberal values and professional standards that I believe have been eroded by political activ­ists in the academy over the last several decades. One of my concerns is that this be accom­plished without endangering the independence of the univer­sity, which is a cornerstone of what we all mean by academic freedom.

The opponents of my Academic Bill of Rights have misrepresented my agendas and thus misled many in the academic community into the position of defending an indefensible status quo. For example, the academic freedom guidelines of many universities all over the country include a memorable sentence taken from the American Association of University Professors' (AAUP) 1940 Statement of Principles on Tenure and Academic Freedom: "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject." The purpose is to prevent activist faculty from using the classroom to promote overtly political agendas. Yet when this very statement was incorporated into Ohio Senate Bill 24 (a legislative version of the Academic Bill of Rights), it was attacked by AAUP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the teacher unions as an attempt by leg­islators "to restrict professors' speech."

The issue, of course, is not free speech; it is profession­alism. It is a question of what is appropriate discourse for a professional instructor in a class-room. There is a reason why tenure and academic freedom are linked in the original AAUP statements. The privilege of tenure is given to academics because they are professionals, bound to respect the tenets of academic freedom. The privilege derives from the fact that they are experts in certain fields of knowledge and that society recognizes that, in order to pursue knowledge in their professional fields, they must have the freedom and independence to do so. But when an English prefessor declares in a classroom that the war in Iraq is immoral, this professor is not expressing a professional judgment based on his or her field of expertise. Such a professor is merely venting a personal opinion not grounded in any professional expertise.

Professors' opinions about the war in Iraq may be correct (or incorrect) but that is irrelevant to the fact that they are not speaking in the classroom as knowledgeable professionals, which is what they were hired to do. Instead, they are adopting partisan positions that distance them from the students who disagree with their opinions, and damage their ability to teach those students. This is an abuse of the classroom. It is an attempt to influence the students over whom they have significant institutional authority, including grading power, in a way that existing academic freedom guidelines specifically prohibit. Unfortunately, incidents like this occur frequently in contemporary college classrooms. Such abuses more often than not pass without notice or comment from university officials. The remedy is to reassert and enforce academic freedom guidelines that would prevent such abuses.

It is true that I myself can fairly be described as a "neo-conservative" in politics-though I am not enamored of the label. But that does not mean that the Academic Bill of Rights has some hidden neo-conservative agenda. In matters of academic reform, I am a pragmatist and a liberal. My model for academic freedom is the Columbia Univer­sity I attended in the late 1950s (class of '59)-at the tail end of the McCarthy era. My parents were Communists and I wrote my Columbia papers from a Marxist perspective. Yet, my pro­fessors treated me no differently from how they treated other students and never once that I can remember expressed a political point of view in the classroom. I am grateful to my teachers for their professionalism and would like to see their level of profes­sionalism restored to university classrooms. That is the true agenda of my campaign.

No fair-minded reader of my Academic Bill of Rights (text available at www.studentsfor academicfreedom.org) will miss the fact that every one of its sentences reflects the principles and perspectives of the academic freedom tradition that was estab­lished with AAUP's 1915 General Report on the Principles of Tenure and Academic Freedom.

Before publishing the Academic Bill of Rights, I vetted it with Stanley Fish, the former dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago and he approved every word of it. What Professor Fish did not approve was my decision to take the bill to legislatures. I share many of his concerns about legislatures, but the reality of university politics is that without the leverage of legislation, no university administration would have considered the issues I am trying to raise. The opposition from radical faculty members would be too strong. If I had not made the decision to go to legislatures, no one would be talking about these issues now. There would not be an article about the Academic Bill of Rights in a magazine like The Presidency.

That said, I do not believe legislatures are suited to fixing the academic problems that need to be addressed. Only the university itself can do this. That is why when the American Council on Education issued its June 2005 statement on academic freedom, I was the first person to endorse it. I endorsed it because even though it did not include everything I would have wanted, I am a pragmatist in this reform effort and understand that without the goodwill and cooperation of university administrations, nothing positive can be achieved.

Last October, the Inter-University Council of Ohio, representing 15 of the state's largest public universities, agreed to embrace the ACE statement if the state's legislators would agree to withdraw their legislation, which they did. The legislature in Colorado and the Colorado state university system reached similar agreement, as have educators and legislators in Tennessee; another agreement is pending with one of the largest university systems in the country. These agreements represent the steps toward solutions that I would like to see.

This is easier said than done. The inertia in any university system is bound to be great. However, the dangers of not doing anything, of not moving forward, are even greater. I can assure you that the movement I have begun is not going to be satisfied with the status quo. Republican legislators have been through the educational system and have experienced the harassment that faculty radicals frequently mete out to their conservative students. They are becoming increasingly familiar with the Ward Churchills who inhabit every faculty in this country and who constitute a public relations disaster in waiting if these issues are not addressed. They will not be satisfied by rhetoric alone. The positive side of this is that the concrete actions they are asking for are entirely within the guidelines of academic freedom that universities already embrace.

Universities can insulate themselves from adverse public reaction to these programs by taking steps to (1) strengthen the academic professionalism of their faculties and courses; and (2) promote the values of intellectual diversity. The public understands that the university should be a marketplace of ideas. It will understand and make allowances for individuals who go off the deep end on either side of the spectrum. It will have less patience for institutions that are entirely one-sided and do not reflect the intellectual pluralism that Americans expect of their institutions, particularly institutions of learning. If universities enforce professional standards and foster intellectual diversity in the liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences, they will find public support on both Sides of the political and cultural divides. The Academic Bill of Rights is designed to make that happen.