What Happens When the Statehouse Wades Into the Marketplace of Ideas? · 14 September 2006

By Sarah Griffith--BG News--08/18/06

Liberal and conservative thoughts have waged battle on college campuses since the birth of higher learning institutions. Ohio campuses are no exception.

Ohio Senate Bill 24, or the "Academic Bill of Rights," illustrated how deeply the rift between the political left and the right had plunged. Namely into the middle of the classroom.

The bill, introduced in January 2005, prohibits professors from "persistently introducing controversial matter ... that has no relation to their subject of study."

Student activities, like choosing and funding speakers, "shall observe the principles of academic freedom," it said.

Although the bill seems to have died in committee, it caused a significant stir on campus for fears of restricting speech.

Its supporters, like Students for Academic Freedom, accuse universities of not being properly divided on political lines.

SAF is an organization created by well-known conservative David Horowitz in response to this disproportion. It has chapters in over 150 colleges, including BGSU.

The SAF Web site features studies suggesting that journalism and law professors are distributed at seven Democrats to one Republican; in political science it is estimated as eight to one.

Some legislators have begun to ask how the alleged disparity affects students who rely on these professors for the knowledge they need.

"These are young minds that haven't had a chance to form their own opinions," said State Senator Larry Mumper, one of Bill 24's sponsors, in a January story for The Columbus Dispatch.

"Our colleges and universities are still filled with some of the '60s and '70s profs that were the anti-American group. They've gotten control of how to give people tenure and so the colleges continue to move in this direction," he said.

The bill's supporters say students receive a "one-sided" education when their professors fall mostly to the political left. Bill 24 attempts to legislate a protection against those biases.

But some professors argue their professional ethics, as well as University policy, already prevent them from using their position in the classroom as a political soapbox.

"Most universities have pretty clear procedures already set in place," said Marc Simon, chair of the political science department, "you have to have your teaching material approved beforehand and justify its educational worth in the classroom."

Those procedures include a chain of command in the administration to which a student can voice complaints.

"If a student has a problem with a professor, they can either go to the professor with their problem, or to the [department] chair. They may also go to the dean if they feel their needs are not being met," Simon said.

In response to Bill 24, the University provost also introduced an eight-member Committee on Academic Freedom. It hopes to ensure the enforcement of student rights and academic freedom on both sides of the classroom.

Simon believes the establishment of similar committees in other state universities caused the death of Bill 24.

"Universities [are] letting it be known ... that there are procedures in place that keep this kind of behavior in check," Simon said.

"When the government offers to step in ... you have non-experts determining curriculum."

He also stressed, especially to freshmen, that what a professor says is not always what he or she means.

"As professors, we want students to be engaged and to be able to defend their ideas no matter where they go.

"This sometimes means throwing things at your students that they have never heard before, simply to see if they will argue with you and get engaged in their own opinions," Simon said.

He said this style is often intimidating for students fresh out of high school.

"We don't want students to take everything at face value. This will make them better students and better professionals as they can address counterarguments and think critically."

Response to Bowling Green News

Sarah Griffith's recent article (What happens when the statehouse wades into the marketplace of ideas?, 08/18) is misinformed on several points, and glosses over the crucial distinction between faculty responsibilities and students' academic rights.

Griffith quotes BGSU professor Marc Simon as saying that existing protections for students' academic freedom are adequate. But we have shown repeatedly that this is not the case.

BGSU's existing academic freedom policy contains almost exactly the language used in Ohio Senate Bill 24 (based on the American Association of University Professors' 1940 statement on academic freedom), stating that faculty have "The responsibility to state clearly the objectives of the courses taught, to direct the instruction toward the fulfillment of these objectives, and to avoid the persistent intrusion of material irrelevant to the established course definition or apart from the faculty member's area of scholarly competence."

The problem with this policy, and the reason why Senate Bill 24 was introduced last year, is that it is phrased solely in terms of faculty responsibilities rather than student rights, and is not being enforced. It is crucial that university academic freedom policies grant explicit rights to both professors and students.

In a compromise reached last fall, the Inter-University Council of Ohio agreed to implement several core principles of academic freedom in both the public and private state campuses which it represents. In exchange Senator Larry Mumper, the sponsor of Senate Bill 24, agreed not to pursue the legislation. Nearly a year later, little has changed for Ohio's students.

Last month, Temple University became the first campus to adopt an explicit policy granting students academic rights, including the right to file a grievance if their professor grades them on their political or religious views, or persistently uses the classroom to advocate for his or her personal beliefs which are irrelevant to the class subject. If BGSU truly cares about protecting students' academic freedom, the administration should follow Temple's example and adopt a Student Bill of Rights.

Sara Dogan
National Campus Director
Students for Academic Freedom