Frequently Made Attacks on the Academic Bill of Rights · 06 January 2009

Filed under: Replies to Critics

Since it was first introduced in 2003, the Academic Bill of Rights, a document which reinforces the principles of fairness, inclusion and diversity in academia, has been repeatedly maligned and mischaracterized by the national teacher unions and their representatives and allies in the academic left. Below are some of the most frequent attacks made on the Bill with responses illustrating why the attacks are misplaced.

Claim: The Academic Bill of Rights would replace academic or scholarly standards with political ones.

Response: The idea that the Academic Bill of Rights would replace scholarly standards with political ones is baseless, since the document is wholly drawn from the canonical academic freedom documents published by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) which state that “the freedom to teach and freedom to learn” are inseparable and that “Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion.” The ABOR makes no mention whatsoever of particular political views or philosophies, nor does it refer to any authorities outside of the academic governance system or propose any outside interventions in that system.

Claim: The Academic Bill of Rights’ endorsement of intellectual diversity would require biology professors to teach creationism alongside evolution or would require history professors to teach the perspective of Holocaust deniers.

Response: The Academic Bill of Rights does not require the teaching of all views on every topic or any topic, nor does it mandate the teaching of any particular viewpoint. Moreover, the only spectrum of opinion which it proposes that professors should explore is “the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses.” Creationism and Intelligent Design are not recognized as scientific theories by the biology profession and therefore would not be included in the spectrum of significant scholarly opinion. The same applies to teaching a non-scholarly perspective like Holocaust denial in a history course.

Claim: The Academic Bill of Rights would force instructors to limit class discussion to only mainstream ideas and forego all mention of controversial or politically sensitive topics.

Response: The Academic Bill of Rights specifically states that it is a “major responsibility of faculty” to expose students “to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses.” It does not say that students should be exposed only to mainstream ideas and material. It says the opposite: students should not be restricted to one side of any controversial question.

The Bill’s provision that “Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or anti-religious indoctrination” does not in any way constitute a prohibition on discussing controversial or political ideas in the classroom. Rather, it an endorsement of the academic freedom standards set by the American Association of University Professors which states that teachers “should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” The discussion of controversial material that is relevant to the subject of a course is encouraged.

Claim: The Academic Bill of Rights would force universities to hire more politically conservative faculty members, or would create quotas for conservative faculty, rather than taking the most qualified candidate for a given position.

Response: The Academic Bill of Rights states explicitly that “All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise.” The Bill also states that “No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.” These statements make clear that instead of mandating the hiring of more conservative faculty (or faculty of any political stripe for that matter) the Academic Bill of Rights merely ensures that all candidates receive fair consideration for their academic merits, regardless of whatever their political beliefs might be.

Claim: The Academic Bill of Rights stifles academic freedom and takes away professors’ rights to determine their own academic curricula for the classes they teach.

Response: The Academic Bill of Rights specifically prohibits interference in university affairs and curricula by external agencies, stating that:

“Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors, researchers and students in the pursuit of knowledge and the expression of ideas from interference by legislators or authorities within the institution itself. This means that no political, ideological or religious orthodoxy will be imposed on professors and researchers through the hiring or tenure or termination process, or through any other administrative means by the academic institution. Nor shall legislatures impose any such orthodoxy through their control of the university budget” (emphasis added).

Course curricula are specifically mentioned only once in the Academic Bill of Rights in a passage affirms faculty’s basic prerogative to determine the content of their courses, noting that “teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views” and cautioning only that faculty should “welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.”

Claim: The Academic Bill of Rights constitutes legislative interference in university affairs.

Response: The Academic Bill of Rights proposes a standard of educational professionalism and fairness. It does not propose a system of academic governance. The Bill makes no mention at all of legislative authorities. Its provisions are designed to enacted and enforced by university authorities, not politicians. Where the Academic Bill of Rights has been introduced as legislation, it has been considered only as a “sense of the congress” resolution, and not as statutory law.

Claim: The Academic Bill of Rights is unnecessary because universities already have regulations protecting students’ rights.

Response: Our research on academic freedom policies at campuses across the nation has revealed that while most colleges and universities have regulations protecting the academic freedom rights of faculty, these provisions are almost never extended to students. Academic freedom policies most often appear in faculty handbooks or faculty union contracts—-not places where students are likely to look for them. Furthermore, these provisions are typically phrased solely in terms of a professor’s responsibility not to indoctrinate his or her students, rather than in terms of a student’s right not to be indoctrinated. The Academic Bill of Rights would correct that loophole.

When Pennsylvania held a series of academic freedom hearings in 2006, they found that not a single public campus in the commonwealth had policies explicitly protecting students’ academic freedom.

Claim: The Academic Bill of Rights has been rejected everywhere it has been considered.

Response: Each of the state legislative bills inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights took the form of a non-binding resolution, not a statute. These resolutions urged universities to consider the principles of professionalism and fairness codified in the Academic Bill of Rights but did not require them to do so, or in fact to do anything. There was never an attempt to make the Academic Bill of Rights law. Nor, have all these legislative ventures been failures.

In Ohio, legislation inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights was withdrawn when 17 public colleges and universities agreed to adopt the ACE statement that “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education.”

In Colorado, the legislation was withdrawn when the presidents of Colorado’s state universities agreed to put the principles of the Academic Bill of Rights into effect. Both houses of the legislature then unanimously adopted a joint resolution urging the state’s public college and universities to adopt provisions based on the Academic Bill of Rights. In return, the presidents of the state’s major public campuses signed a Memorandum of Understanding pledging to provide protections to students of all political viewpoints and emphasizing that “Colorado’s institutions of higher education are committed to valuing and respecting diversity, including respect for diverse political viewpoints.”

Claim: The Academic Bill of Rights has been rejected by numerous professorial organizations including the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

Response: The Academic Bill of Rights has been a pioneering document in defending student rights to a fair and professional instruction. In June 2005, at the behest of university presidents across the country, the American Council on Education (ACE), representing more than 1,600 college and universities in the United States, issued a statement that was a direct response to the Academic Bill of Rights campaign. The statement declared that “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education.” Except for the substitution of the term “intellectual pluralism” for “intellectual diversity” this was the central idea of David Horowitz’s campaign. This statement was signed by 27 additional educational organizations, including the AAUP.

A recent publication of the Brookings Institution, authored by a university president and two professors, credits Academic Bill of Rights author David Horowitz with inspiring the ACE statement. The book, Closed Minds? notes that the ACE statement “blended traditional concepts of academic freedom with an endorsement of intellectual pluralism and student rights as championed by Horowitz.”

By opposing the Academic Bill of Rights, the AAUP and other educational organizations reveal themselves as hypocrites by claiming to support the principles behind the Academic Bill of Rights but failing to enforce them.