An Attack on Academic Freedom · 20 March 2009

By Sara Dogan - Frontpage Magazine

On March 19, the Board of Trustees at the College of DuPage in Illinois held a vote on whether to adopt a new policy manual containing several provisions inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR). Right on cue, two state educational organizations emerged to lambaste the bill and its supporters in a mendacious effort to thwart passage of the college’s revised manual. Consequently, a vote on provisions related to the Academic Bill of Rights and several other contested policies has been postponed until April.

The Illinois State Council of the American Association of University Professors, led by President Robert Kendall, released a statement on March 16, three days before the planned vote, attacking numerous proposed policy changes in the revised policy manual, only a handful of which were in fact drawn from the Academic Bill of Rights. The Illinois Community College Faculty Association then followed suit, issuing an error-laden letter from its president, Kathleen Westman, criticizing one particular educational policy in the manual that was inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights.

To understand the stakes in this emerging battle, a little background is in order. The College of DuPage is a large community college located near Chicago. Over a period of several months, the DuPage Board of Trustees has suggested revisions to the school’s policy manual. Most of these revisions bear no connection to the Academic Bill of Rights. However, because a version of the Academic Bill of Rights was initially included among the proposed changes, it has served as a convenient target for faculty union officials and left-wing educational operatives seeking to mobilize opposition to the entire process of reform.

In this they have been partially successful. Following a series of attacks by the DuPage Faculty Association, a member of the National Education Association, the DuPage Board of Trustees removed nearly all the language from the original Academic Bill of Rights, leaving only a few scattered remnants loosely inspired by the Bill among its proposed policy changes.

Such concessions have only emboldened the opponents of reform. The Illinois AAUP, for instance, now singles out a total of 16 policies in the revised manual to illustrate its claim that it “represents an extraordinary attack on academic freedom, shared governance, and intellectual liberty,” though only three of these actually echo language from the Academic Bill of Rights and the academic freedom campaign led by David Horowitz – and even these contain significant differences from the text of the Academic Bill of Rights.

The critics have nevertheless insisted on portraying the DuPage manual as a copy of the ABOR, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. In this connection, AAUP Illinois Council President Walter Kendall dedicates the entirety of his brief introduction to the AAUP’s state council letter to vilifying Horowitz, whom he attacks as a “controversial polemicist,” and the Academic Bill of Rights, insinuating that all the proposed policy reforms can be traced to that document. Clearly, Kendall believes that just mentioning Horowitz and the Academic Bill of Rights by name should be enough to generate faculty opposition to the other proposed changes.

While these tactics may prove successful, they are unscrupulous. We make no claims about the other 13 policy changes proposed by the DuPage board of trustees. These lie outside the realm of our academic freedom campaign and were in no way influenced by it. But the AAUP’s and ICCFA’s objections to the three policy proposals that do stem from the ABOR are clearly specious and typify the academic Left’s serially dishonest response to any proposals concerning students’ academic freedom.

Consider the AAUP’s claims about policy 15-335, which states that “Faculty members have a duty to present controversial issues in an unbiased manner which respects their students’ rights to academic freedom to determine for themselves the proper resolution of such issues.” The Illinois AAUP objects to this clause on the grounds that “Faculty members should be evaluated on the basis of competence and professional and disciplinary standards.” Notice how the AAUP statement implies that the DuPage policy, under the influence of the Academic Bill of Rights, says otherwise. In fact, the Academic Bill of Rights states makes this very point explicitly, noting 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 and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.”

The initial policy proposal at DuPage included this more explicit language from the Academic Bill of Rights, but it was removed as a result of the unscrupulous attacks by the DuPage Faculty Association. As a result of this opposition, the DuPage trustees decided to remove some of the more explicit similarities between their proposed policy changes and the Academic Bill of Rights, weakening rather than strengthening academic freedom protections for faculty in the process.

Returning to policy 15-335, the Illinois AAUP claims with extreme pretention that “Many of the revered books of our civilization are ‘biased’; the great thinkers all had a point of view. This policy, if taken as written, would have prevented Jefferson from teaching our Declaration of Independence at the College….it would appear that under this policy, a creationist student could assert the right to disagree with the scientific reality of evolution in a biology class.”

Reading this passage, one would conclude that the Academic Bill of Rights is opposed to “biased” books. But the word “biased” appears nowhere in the Academic Bill of Rights, nor does it appear in the original version of the policy proposal at DuPage. When the school policy refers to an “unbiased manner,” this is clearly defined as one “which respects their students’ rights to academic freedom to determine for themselves the proper resolution of such issues.” Note that this clause applies not to every issue, but only to the presentation of “controversial issues” in the classroom. Since the theory of evolution is no longer considered a controversial issue in the realm of biological scholarship, this policy would not allow for creationist students asserting their right to disagree with an instructor over the theory of evolution, which is supported in scientific scholarship by overwhelming evidence.

Another clause in the proposed DuPage policy manual that the AAUP finds objectionable is policy 20-5, which states that “The College will also prohibit discrimination based on an individual’s viewpoint or opinion.” Of this policy, the AAUP declares that “The danger of adding ‘viewpoint or opinion’ to the list of prohibited acts is that quite obviously there are correct and incorrect opinions about reality. Certainly the Professor’s job is to discriminate between them. Students are in school to learn how to discriminate between them. If they fail to do so, of course they will be ‘discriminated’ against – questioned in class; or get a poor grade, for instance.”

Once again, this proposed policy change bears little similarity to the Academic Bill of Rights, which is much clearer in its terminology and states that “Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate.” The AAUP may be correct that the wording is confusingly vague, but the overall point remains that a protection should be put into place guaranteeing students the right to disagree with professors on matters of opinion –as opposed to issues of settled fact – in the classroom.

The final policy proposal related to the Academic Bill of Rights that the AAUP singles out is policy 25-135, which states that “Academic Freedom – The Concept – Academic freedom and intellectual diversity are values indispensable to the American college.” On this point, the Illinois AAUP claims that “The inclusion of the term ‘intellectual diversity’ into the discussion of the philosophical, conceptual, and contractual meaning of ‘academic freedom’ is to either add a vague and thus potentially confusing redundancy, as the word ‘diversity’ is used in other places in the document; or to attempt to change the settled meaning and understanding of the term. Neither is warranted, and the words ‘and intellectual diversity’ should be deleted from this policy.”

This bickering over semantics typifies the AAUP’s response to the whole issue of academic freedom. Faced with the very real co-option of the academic curriculum by political proselytizers, the AAUP prefers to bury its collective head in the sand and sidestep the issue entirely. With one recent exception: In June 2005, the AAUP was one of the signatories of a statement released by the American Council on Education (ACE), which represents more than 1,600 college and universities in the United States. The statement declared that “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education.” Except for the change of the term “intellectual diversity” to “intellectual pluralism” this is the central idea of David Horowitz’s campaign and echoes almost exactly the language of the proposed DuPage policy which the AAUP has now decided to attack.

In the book Closed Minds, recently released by the Brookings Institution and authored by a university president and two professors, the authors assert that the ACE statement “blended traditional concepts of academic freedom with an endorsement of intellectual pluralism and student rights as championed by Horowitz.” Clearly, there is little to no difference between the terms “pluralism” and “diversity.” The AAUP is merely engaging in wordplay in an effort to deflect attention from its failure to support students’ academic freedom.

The Illinois Community College Faculty Association (ICCFA) also deemed this particular policy so dangerous that its president, Kathleen Westman, released a separate letter asking that it “be withdrawn in its entirety from the College of DuPage Policy Manual.” In a statement marred by multiple factual errors, Westman objects to the fact that the proposed DuPage policy does not encompass more of the language of the AAUP’s 1940 statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure which states that “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.”

In fact, proponents of the Academic Bill of Rights have pointed to this statement numerous times as evidence that the AAUP must act to prevent indoctrination in the classroom. The one problem with this statement is that it is phrased entirely from a faculty perspective. It states what faculty should not do – e.g., “introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject” – but does not give students an explicit right to protest if their professors fail to abide by this restriction.

Westman asserts that the DuPage trustees should look to the AAUP’s Joint Statement on the Rights and Freedom of Students for a sound theory of students’ rights. The Academic Bill of Rights, so reviled by the teachers unions and the AAUP, in fact draws heavily from this statement, which declares 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, but they are responsible for learning the content of any course of study for which they are enrolled.” The essence of this laudable statement is included in the Academic Bill of Rights and was originally included in the proposed policy changes at DuPage, yet it was eliminated in the DuPage reforms as a result of opposition from the teachers unions. This paradoxical maneuvering is yet one more example of how the AAUP and the academic Left attack the Academic Bill of Rights for encompassing precisely the same rights and perspectives they are supposedly committed to upholding.

Furthermore, Westman is flat-out wrong when she declares that the Academic Bill of Rights is opposed by the National Association of Scholars (we have verified through NAS President Steve Balch that this is not the case). She also claims that “Horowitz and his allies have attempted to introduce the Academic Bill of Rights as legislation in several states, and they failed in all cases.” This, too, is untrue. There has never been an effort to make the Academic Bill of Rights statutory law. While versions of the Academic Bill of Rights have been introduced by state legislators, each of these has taken 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 take any action whatsoever. Legislation proposed in several states, including Colorado and Ohio, led to successful compromises between legislators and university officials, thereby serving its purpose of incentivizing university authorities to take action to protect student rights.

Ironically, while both Kendall and Westman urge the DuPage Board of Trustees to use AAUP statements as models for the policy manual at DuPage, they both vilify the Academic Bill of Rights, which is explicitly drawn from these same AAUP statements. Many of their objections to the Board’s proposed policies at DuPage would have been rectified had the Board kept the original language of their policy proposals which was taken word-for-word from the Academic Bill of Rights.

In his letter, Kendall states that this most-recent version of the proposed policy manual “makes some improvements” over a previous version released in the fall which included language taken directly from the Academic Bill of Rights, but in fact the protections for both faculty and students’ academic freedom are weaker as a result. Clearly, the AAUP will only be satisfied when all allusions to students’ academic freedom rights are removed from the manual. The AAUP’s and ICCFA’s knee-jerk reaction to the academic freedom proposals at DuPage illustrate once again these organizations’ perpetual failure to enforce the original vision and standards of their founders in order to protect students’ right to an education free from indoctrination.

Sara Dogan is National Campus Director of Students for Academic Freedom.