Reply to Ball State University President Jo Ann Gora’s Statement that the Academic Bill of Rig · 26 December 2004

Filed under: Replies to Critics

By David Horowitz and Sara Dogan, 12/27/04

In her column in the Muncie Star Press , Ball State University President Jo Ann Gora claims that the "fundamental concepts" of the Academic Bill of Rights are "already codified at Ball State and have been since at least the 1960's." She added, "Our experience shows the systems built into these policies work."

Neither of these claims can be sustained. If Ball State's academic freedom protections worked, student Brett Mock would not have had to appeal to sources outside the university to support his complaint, which President Gora and her administration have yet to address. Moreover, Students for Academic Freedom has researched Ball State's academic freedom policies and has found them to lack crucial and specific protections for intellectual diversity particularly as they affect relations between faculty and students in the classroom.

On the positive side, Ball State embraces the idea of academic freedom and recognizes the importance of institutional neutrality in partisan matters. The ability to study independent or controversial topics, whether political or not, is singled out as necessary to "the spirit of free inquiry." "An environment conducive to respect for the rights of others" is emphasized as an important aspect of education. The Ball State guidelines are admirable so far as they go.

The chief deficiencies of the code are that its statement of principles is often too general and is particularly vague in regard to the practical application of the principles it endorses. Most importantly, it fails to define the centrality of academic freedom to the specific mission of the university to educate (rather than indoctrinate) students, and it does not address the problem posed by these academic freedom issues in the context of the unequal relationship that exists between faculty and students.

The Ball State code recognizes the importance of "the expression of ideas, philosophies, or religious beliefs…in classroom or other academic settings," but remains vague on how this expression is to be protected. It fails to differentiate between professors and students, despite the inequality of power between these groups, and it fails to specify the responsibilities of faculty as educators. In particular, it does not mention the professional obligations of teachers in regard to those whom they are charged to educate. It does not address, for example, the responsibility of teachers to maintain a scholarly discourse in their classrooms as distinct from the partisan advocacy familiar in the political arena. It is this distinction, which is it at the heart of Brett Mock's complaint about the Peace Studies program at Ball State, and the Ball State academic freedom code does not address it.

The American Association of University Professors, which is the organization responsible for the formulation of the concept of academic freedom, has historically placed great weight on these distinctions. In its 1915 General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (the first enunciation of the principles of academic freedom), the AAUP observes that teachers are in a position of authority over their students and should thus avoid "taking unfair advantage of the student's immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher's own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own."

There is no recognition of this crucial observation in the Ball State academic freedom guidelines, nor protection for students from the abuse it describes.

In its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP returned to the matter of protecting students from being politically indoctrinated: "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 a 1970 clarification and re-endorsement of this principle, the AAUP stated: "The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is 'controversial.' Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry, which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject."

The Academic Bill of Rights address these problems and creates enumerated rights designed to ensure that faculty will meet their professional obligations as educators and that students will be able to learn in an environment that respects their academic freedom.

Ball State administrators have stressed the fact that Brett Mock did not file an official complaint as a reason to dismiss his claim that he was indoctrinated in Professor George Wolfe's "Introduction to Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution" class. But on examination of Ball State's official policies, it is not clear that he would have had grounds to file such a complaint. The policy makes no mention of the importance of intellectual diversity in the classroom nor does it condemn the inappropriate use of the classroom for partisan political purposes. It does not require professors to present a range of significant scholarly views on the topics they cover in class, preferring the vague and statement of a right to "teach, learn and to conduct research….without detriment to or denigration of other, especially untried, methods and/or subjects of inquiry." Section 1.6.7 of the Code states that members of the university community have a "right to recourse if another member of the University community is negligent or irresponsible in performance of his or her responsibilities" but this provision is vague and no specifics as to how a student can obtain recourse for violations of academic freedom are addressed in this section.

The inadequacy of the Ball State code is underscored by Provost Pitts' request that Brett Mock submit his complaint as a grading issue, although he has stated repeatedly that he has no interest in contesting his grade. This illustrates Ball State's lack of appropriate procedures for dealing with issues of classroom indoctrination.

The Ball State code is silent on the following rights and obligations specified by the Academic Bill of Rights:

  • 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. While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.
  • Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.
  • Selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers programs and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.

If President Gora is truly committed to "strong policies protecting academic freedom that explicitly call for tolerance of diverse opinions, fairness, and mutual respect," as she stated in her article in the Muncie Star Press, then she will take steps to revise the Ball State Student Code to include prohibitions on using the classroom for partisan indoctrination and to encourage professors in the humanities and social sciences to respect the unsettled nature of knowledge in their fields and to provide students access to a diverse range of perspectives on the topics they teach. Ball State must also put into place appropriate grievance machinery to allow students such as Brett Mock who have experienced violations of these principles to seek administrative support and remedies. These policies should be included in the student catalogue and similar venues so that all students are aware of their rights.

Unfortunately, the stonewalling of President Gora and the Ball State Administration in regards to the case of student Brett Mock and the patent abuses of the Peace Studies program do not augur well for self-reform of a system that is clearly broken. It for this reason that we have approached Indiana legislators, who have a fiduciary responsibility for Indiana universities to adopt the Academic Bill of Rights as state education policy.