Prof's Mouth May Silence All Educators · 25 February 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Jim Spencer--Denver Post, 02/26/04

For a Harvard Ph.D., Tim Gould acted pretty stupid Wednesday afternoon. The Metropolitan State College philosophy professor got nose-to-nose with a conservative undergraduate in front of a legislative committee considering whether Colorado needs to pass a law to protect college students from liberal bias.

As members of the House education committee watched, Gould gave the Republican-dominated General Assembly the ammunition it needs to impose a legislative gag order on teachers at state colleges and universities.

Gould threatened to sue 21-year-old Ian VanBuskirk after VanBuskirk invited the General Assembly to put "a chilling effect" on professors.

VanBuskirk had just told the committee how his professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder discriminated against him because of his politics.

After VanBuskirk left the microphone, Gould angrily confronted the student in the hearing room. Before 100 witnesses who could see, but not hear what was said, Gould told VanBuskirk he would sue if VanBuskirk tried to limit Gould's free speech.

The professor's childish display took up only a few seconds in more than two hours of testimony. But it was the issue that committee member Keith King and bill sponsor Shawn Mitchell seized on as the proposal to protect conservative students from intimidation by liberal teachers moved to the House floor on a 6-5, party-line vote.

Gould's behavior didn't change any votes. Still, he blew it. He gave the right-wingers their liberal bogeyman.

"If he behaves that way in a hearing room," said Mitchell, "imagine how powerful he feels in his classroom."

Here was the prejudice conservatives say permeates the state's institutions of higher learning.

Here was why a law must be passed to protect political and religious conservatives on campus, even though most schools already have policies that forbid such discrimination.

Gould hurt professors all over the state. He apologized to VanBuskirk outside the hearing. Gould told VanBuskirk he was "much more in-your-face" than he should have been. As they agreed to disagree and shook hands, Gould said what he did "was not nice."

Not nice? How about inexcusable?

"Sir, you are the very reason we need this bill," King told Gould.

Lots of folks - present company included - disagree with King's assessment. Gould's stupidity notwithstanding, very little evidence exists that aggrieved conservatives have suffered for expressing their political and religious views. The great majority who complain haven't filed grievances. Conservative legislators care little for this lack of proof.

Still, no one - present company still included - can defend Gould's actions.

He's the teacher, not the student. To command respect and authority, professors must submit to a higher standard of behavior.

Gould not only fell short, he dragged down thousands of professional colleagues.

"It was not appropriate," said Mark Malone, chairman of the faculty council at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Minutes before Gould's outburst, Malone made a compelling argument. He told the committee that the proposed law, which, among other things, bans "controversial matter ... unrelated to the subject," combines with ongoing budget cuts to encourage good professors to leave Colorado and discourage good professors from coming to the state.

The response of some committee members seemed to be good riddance.

"Dozens, if not hundreds of times, a day in classrooms, statements are made which shouldn't be," Rep. Al White said with dramatic flair only slightly less absurd than Gould's.

"If professors are afraid to be called on the carpet," said Rep. Lynn Hefley, if they worry that a ban on controversial speech will "bind them, then maybe they're not the right professors to be at these universities."

Be careful what you ask for.

CU president Betsy Hoffman warned that faculty members consider Mitchell's bill a no-confidence vote.

"No employee wants to feel they're not trusted," Hoffman said.

"Make no mistake," she added, Mitchell's bill will keep Colorado from attracting first-class educators.

Some would argue that hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts to colleges and universities already signal the General Assembly's contempt for higher education. In that case, muzzling professors so they don't hurt students' feelings is really just an insult to a critical injury.

On the other hand, it would've been nice if someone had shoved a sock in Gould's gaping maw on Wednesday.

Education committee member Angie Paccione, a college professor herself, vocally opposed Mitchell's law. She voted against it. But she nailed Gould with the disdain he earned.

"There may be a few bad apples in the professoriate," Paccione told her colleagues. "And we may have seen one today."