The Professor Unions' Botched Battle · 08 November 2006

Filed under: Commentary, Pennsylvania

On the first day of the hearings, Democrats on the committee -- who, at the instigation of the teacher unions, had opposed its formation -- denounced its proceedings as “a colossal waste of time.” Its Democratic co-chair, Lawrence Curry, keynoted two union-sponsored rallies at which his own committee was condemned as a McCarthy witch-hunt. Speaking for the American Association of University Professors, Joan Wallach Scott compared the Academic Bill of Rights to the practices of regimes in fascist Germany and Communist Russia and referred to its supporters as “the pro-Sharon lobby.” The local press in Pennsylvania provided a sympathetic sounding board for these attacks. The Centre Daily Times, which serves the Penn State community, even titled an editorial on the hearings “Good Night and Good Luck” after the George Clooney film about the McCarthy era. 

Yet despite the overwhelming preponderance of these antagonistic voices, and the weakness of the Republicans, who failed to raise an eyebrow over the sabotage efforts of their committee colleagues), no sooner were hearings over than they had already produced a positive result. The administration at Bloomsburg University modified its student code to include a provision expressly forbidding the grading of students on the basis of their “political or religious opinions.” And on July 19, the trustees of Temple University adopted a new academic policy, which met most of the criteria for an academic bill of rights that sponsors of the hearings like myself had asked for.

Under the heading “Faculty and Students Rights and Responsibilities,” the new Temple policy created rights for students that had not existed before. Until the new policy was put in place, the existing academic freedom policy – as is still the case at virtually all of Pennsylvania’s public universities, referred only to “faculty responsibilities.” There was no provision for student rights. The new Temple policy recognizes these rights and also creates a grievance machinery that specifically addresses academic freedom issues (which the previously existing grievance procedures did not). Finally, the new Temple policy creates an unprecedented reporting system to inform trustees of academic freedom abuses, which is a crucial provision because of the intimidation students feel when confronting faculty members who have power over their grades. The likelihood is quite high that Temple’s example will be followed by the other universities in the state (and beyond).

Having declared a total war on my campaign for academic academic freedom, how had its opponents failed so completely to thwart its agendas? The answer is the total war itself, and the failure to recognize that what I have been asking for is not only perfectly reasonable but accords with the academic freedom principles that the academic profession has itself devised but has failed to extend to all members of the academic community. In short, by fighting a campaign based on unreasonable claims, opponents of the Academic Bill of Rights have discredited their own case, instead of mine.

Thus Michael Berube, another AAUP critic, summed up the hearings in these grossly misleading terms: “In one way, the very formation of the committee was a triumph for conservative culture warriors - in particular, the conservative culture warrior David Horowitz, who has spent the past three years promoting his ‘Academic Bill of Rights,’ which seeks to protect students from ‘biased’ courses and lecturers. But the committee also dealt a blow to Horowitz’s campaign.” Berube adduced as evidence that “Penn State revealed that it had received all of 13 student complaints about political ‘bias’ over the past five years - on a campus with a student population of 40,000.”

This example is instructive, but not in the way Berube intends. Penn State’s academic freedom policy is stated in its Faculty Handbook (Policy HR64). Consequently the 40,000 Penn State students are likely to be unaware of its existence. Moreover, should they actually read the policy, they would find that it does not apply to them: “This policy applies to members of the faculty who have official teaching or research responsibilities at the University.” [1] (Emphasis added.) And: “Appeals: If a faculty member feels that his or her academic freedom rights have been violated, the procedure listed in the policy entitled ‘Faculty Rights and Responsibilities,’ HR 76 may be used.”

So it’s surprising that even 13 students went out of their way to try to appeal violations of what they believed to be their academic freedom rights but which in fact are not provided for by the Penn State Administration. Put in context, even this figure may not seem so insignificant. The McCarthy era lasted nine years rather than the five covered by the Penn State figures. A study by historian Lionel Lewis of academic persecutions during that era turned up only 126 total cases at 58 institutions nationally in which a professor’s appointment was threatened because of his beliefs.[2] These cases led to 69 terminations, of which 31 were at a single institution (the University of California), the result of a loyalty oath. Yet, small as this number may appear among the thousands of universities and hundreds of thousands of professors, the author concludes, “the chilling effect on the expression of all ideas by both faculty and students was significant, although in fact there is no way to measure adequately their full impact.”

My academic freedom campaign is not designed, as Berube claims, “to protect students from ‘biased’ courses and lecturers.” In fact, I have said exactly the opposite and in so many words: “Professors have every right to interpret the subjects they teach according to their individual points of view. That is the essence of academic freedom.” This is a quote from my book The Professors with which Berube claims to be familiar. My concern is not professorial bias, but academic professionalism. Professors are entitled to their bias, but they are not entitled to force students to adopt their bias. That is the issue.

Do professors cross this line? Consider the following course description from the catalogue of the University of Colorado: “This seminar is designed to give students the ability to apply Marx’s theoretical and methodological insights to the study of current topics of theoretical and political importance.” (Sociology 5055)  Marxism is not a science, yet this is a course in how to apply Marxism as though it were a science. The course description does not leave open to students the option to regard Marxism as anything but a body of proven truths.

This is not a small problem in the academy. Course descriptions provided by Women’s Studies departments in universities across the country similarly presume that some form of radical feminism is an established truth. The Department of Women’s Studies at UC Santa Cruz has actually been renamed the Department of Feminist Studies. What would be the reaction if there was a Department of Conservative Studies?

Berube and other opponents of academic freedom have resorted to such a heavy-handed and implausible campaign to discredit the Academic Bill of Rights because what they are really defending is not liberal “bias” in the classroom – with which I have no problem -- but the teaching of radical ideology as an academic discipline, with which I do. Like it or not this is a clear form of indoctrination that is widespread in the post-contemporary academy and that violates time-honored academic standards. The attempt to deny this problem by gross misrepresentation of the aims of the academic freedom campaign has not worked until now. It is unlikely to work in the future.


[1] Ibid.

[2] Lionel Lewis, Cold War On Campus, 1988, supra note 122 at p. 12; cited in Neil Hamilton, Zealotry and Academic Freedom, 1995, p.27 Hamliton is Trustee Professor of Legal Studies at William Mitchell College of Law.