The Fight for an Academic Bill of Rights: Rooting for the Underdog · 14 September 2006

Filed under: Press Coverage


By Maureen Roe--SAF--09/14/06


A few weeks ago, at a faculty development activity, a group of eight Santiago Canyon College (SCC) professors assembled to discuss the difference between indoctrination and instruction and the possibility of maintaining objectivity in the college classroom. As the facilitator of the event, I showed a forty-eight slide PowerPoint presentation to get the discussion going. It was a lively look at how we might define our terms and at some recent accusations of indoctrination (Kevin Barrett, Jay Bennish), culminating in the question of whether our institution-faculty and students-would benefit from adopting our own Academic Bill of Rights. Surprisingly, the faculty (at least those present) were willing to consider such a task, agreeing to call another meeting for all faculty to debate the need for a bill and the likelihood of passing a bill in our school's senate.

Shortly after that initial meeting, word got out that we might be contemplating the bill's adoption at SCC. "I will need serious convincing," was one professor's comment while another questioned, "Why would we need something like that anyway?" The most detailed response came from a philosophy professor in the form of an email to me. With clarity and obvious concern, he expressed three main objections to an institutional bill of rights, striking him "as good in intent, in spirit, but scary in practice." Because his reservations are likely representative of the mainstream opposition, I figure I better be prepared to refute each one.

His 1st objection: "What about classes like Native American culture, black studies, and women's studies? These classes will be seen as 'indoctrinating' their students [because the teachers] are trying to show the minority side, to fight for the underdog's voice, but the overdog calls this 'indoctrination' and 'brainwashing'."

My response: What exactly is the purpose of these "minority" subjects? What is the instructor's charge? Fighting for the underdog sounds like the teacher has turned activist or ACLU lawyer. Professors cannot be activists-at least not in the classroom. If they take out their bullhorns on weekends to vociferously spout their views, that is their prerogative, their time. Rather than presenting information/facts about minority triumphs and tragedies, about historical, literary, and political accomplishments of such figures as Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, and Colin Powell and the obstacles of Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, are instructors to present this information toward some particular end-to get students to "fight" with them for some political or social cause? That sounds dangerously like recruitment for a rally. At Humboldt State University, the Mission Statement for the Women's Studies Department says "scholars/teachers/learners are devoted to understanding the diverse lives, issues and voices of women in our multicultural and international world. We seek to use this knowledge…for the purpose of creating a more just and equitable society." That certainly sounds commendable and beneficial. However, again, one wonders what is the instructor's role in this-to push a central view that would "best" create equity and justice or to discuss the facts about women's lives and voices-what women succeeded in, when, how, against whom, and what/how they are doing today? The Academic Bill of Rights aptly states: "It is not the function of a faculty member in a democracy to indoctrinate his/her students with ready-made conclusions on controversial subjects." A ready-made conclusion has already decided that women are, in fact, underdogs and that men-especially white, rich, capitalist men-are the "overdogs." How sad that a course with a minority group in its name would automatically classify it as an underdog. Perhaps that is why, for years, the University of California had denied transferability to Professor David Clemens's course, "Literature by and About Men." Apparently, men just cannot be underdogs.

His 2nd objection: "We have to be careful about defining our terms. If a student states a Neo-Nazi position, or even a mildly racist position in a Native American history class or a black studies class, and the teacher gets upset and does not let the student continue, is that 'indoctrination'?"

My response: No, that would be one of two things but not indoctrination. If the student was disrupting the class, interrupting pedagogy, making statements that were irrelevant to the discussion and could not be supported with any serious reasoning, then the teacher's actions would be merely good classroom management. If, however, the student was attempting to present a "rational case" for some of Hitler's actions or some scholarly findings to demonstrate the notion that blacks are greatly culpable for their own "oppression" and "victimhood" (echoes of Dr. Bill Cosby and Larry Elder), then, by stopping the student's speech, the teacher would be violating his or her constitutional, First Amendment, right. The Academic Bill of Rights claims that students should "be free to take reasoned exception to the information or views offered in any course of study." The key words are "reasoned exception." Likewise, other students in the course should have the right and opportunity to challenge their peers' views by offering alternate, reasonable positions. If one says he is a Neo-Nazi and can cogently explain why, then another could argue his Zionist position. Essentially, the student, like the instructor, has no right to assume a high place on a soap box, wasting instructional time by presenting one unsubstantiated, name-calling opinion. He or she does, however, have the right to be one voice among the many as long as the voice is backing serious arguments and not merely composed of "fighting words."

His 3rd objection: "The issues are tricky and…we should steer clear of absolutist, oversimplified, non-exception-oriented, sweeping 'answers'." Earlier in the email he also referred to the academic bill of rights idea as "broad generalizations."

My response: Indeed, broad generalizations can be unproductive and or precarious, but that certainly does not stop some universities from using such language in their minority studies' goals and strategic plans statements. Cal State Long Beach's College of Liberal Arts identifies Black Studies as seeking to "critically examine and understand the African initiative from an Afrocentric perspective, from a position internal to the culture, joined with an openness and receptivity to the rich variousness and instructiveness of the total human experience." Let's look at the broad terms here: "initiative" (to what end?); "perspective" (whose exactly?); "culture" (defined how?); "openness" and "receptivity" (to what?); "variousness" (is that even a word? Shouldn't it be "variety"); "instructiveness" (of what specific issues?); and then the biggie, "total human experience" (I'll let that one speak for itself). A Black Studies major is expected to demonstrate "an increased international and multicultural awareness of and sensitivity to issues of diversity, especially those of race, ethnicity, class, and gender and their role in human community and human exchange." Perhaps the danger is not in the perceived "broadness" of the bill of rights movement but in the broad terminology of certain coursework which (intentionally?) leaves itself open to the interpretation of the department and (possibly activist?) instructor. Those opposing the Academic Bill of Rights for its "sweeping broadness" and absolutist tone are, ironically, the same group voicing their own absolutist ideas of how studies should be conducted. Their absolutes are called "truth" while others' are dismissed as "oversimplified" and "non-exception oriented."

In short, the Academic Bill of Rights affirms that the "freedom to teach and freedom to learn are inseparable facets of academic freedom. The freedom to learn depends upon appropriate opportunities and conditions in the classroom." These opportunities are afforded to professors in that they can select what materials/texts to cover with their students and to what extent. These opportunities do not mean preaching messages of oppression and organizing movements to fight for those labeled oppressed. The opportunities for students come in the form of open classroom discussions and free exchange of critical ideas, even when they may be diametrically contrary to the instructor's.

I thank my philosopher colleague and friend for his thoughtful criticisms of this pursuit for an Academic Bill of Rights at SCC. As a conservative thinker in higher education, I might call myself a minority, an "underdog" of sorts. I am reasonably certain that if I developed a class for "Conservative Studies," I would be accused by the "overdogs"-the majority of liberals running the show-of indoctrination. Indeed, if I spent valuable class time telling my students they were underdogs and needed to fight against the liberal machine for equity and justice, then I would be stepping outside my charge as an educator; I would be abusing my academic freedom.

I hope that maybe six months from now I can report that SCC has adopted its own "Student and Faculty Rights and Responsibilities" measure. It will not be an easy road to get there. Until then, please root for this underdog.


Maureen Roe is an associate professor of English at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, CA. She also serves as the English Club advisor and Writing Center coordinator.