Tempers Boil at Hearing on Academic Bill of Rights · 26 February 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

Heated exchange cited as proof law is needed

By Dave Curtin--Denver Post, 02/26/04

A nose-to-nose confrontation between a student and a professor during heated testimony in a wild legislative committee hearing Wednesday on the controversial Students Bill of Rights is the very reason a law is needed to protect students from abuse and proselytizing by their professors, Republican lawmakers said.

The bill, by Rep. Shawn Mitchell R-Broomfield, advanced to the full House after a 6-5 party-line vote in the House Education Committee.

The bill is aimed at protecting conservative students at state colleges from what they claim is harassment and discrimination by left-leaning professors.

It also prohibits faculty from persistently introducing controversial topics unrelated to course content and formalizes a grievance procedure for students - a process college administrators say already exists.

The exchange between University of Colorado student Ian VanBuskirk and Metro State philosophy professor Tim Gould came after 3 1/2 hours of testimony.

"The very reason why this bill is necessary is what we just witnessed," said Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs. "A professor intimidated a student for his comments in a forceful, harassing manner - exactly the reason for this bill to move forward."

"I am representing students who are ostracized and ridiculed daily by their liberal professors," VanBuskirk, the last of two dozen people to testify, said.

"I also represent students who have been told, 'This is my classroom. I've got my Ph.D., therefore I decide what views are appropriate. I do not want your right-wing views in my class.' Clearly we have seen that the grievance process does not work. Why not send a chilling effect to these teachers so other students aren't told this?"

As he left the podium, Gould, who had just testified himself, got face-to-face with the student and said, "I got my Ph.D at Harvard. I'll see your (expletive) in court. Then we'll see a chilling effect," according to VanBuskirk. VanBuskirk was immediately called back before the committee to recount the exchange. Gould was not allowed to explain.

Gould later told The Denver Post that, in the heat of the moment, he doesn't know whether he used foul language. "He said he wanted to send a chilling message, and I reacted to that phrase, because that sounds pretty threatening," Gould said. "Could I have handled it better? Yes. But we spoke afterwards and I think I understand his position better and he seems willing to entertain the danger of legislating academic standards. I think we agree on more than we realized."

VanBuskirk agreed that the two had a civil discussion later.

King also pulled Metro State student Danielle Robinson back to the microphone after testimony was officially closed. She said Gould had berated her in the corridor for not knowing that a grievance procedure exists at Metro.

"I wasn't berating her," Gould told The Post. "I was sympathizing with her. The behavior she was subjected to is outrageous. I told her if she was treated badly, she should file a grievance."

Robinson, a former ROTC student wearing her military uniform to class, said she felt uncomfortable in her introductory philosophy class when the teacher called the military "baby killers" and preached that "innocent people should not die." When queried by legislators, she admitted she didn't file a grievance because she wasn't aware there was a procedure.

Robinson's testimony was typical of 10 students who spoke in support the bill - nearly all members of the campus Republican groups. Thirteen spoke against it.

CU president Betsy Hoffman said CU opposes the bill and is concerned the distrustful "tone" of the bill, in combination with pervasive cuts to state higher education funding, will hurt recruitment and retention of top-flight faculty.

She asked lawmakers to let the universities deal with the problem internally through existing grievance procedures rather than attempt to legislate classroom discussion.

"It's becoming increasingly hard not to say to faculty the legislature does not support you and it doesn't support higher education," Hoffman said.

But Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, said liberal indoctrination on state campuses is a long-standing problem and schools have done nothing to solve it on their own. She suggested that students don't file complaints using established procedures because they are afraid to, and she balked at the argument that it would hurt faculty recruitment.

"We need to send a message that liberal professors who would come here to indoctrinate students aren't welcome here," Hefley said.

Democrat Angie Paccione of Fort Collins, a Colorado State University faculty member, argued that the bill is reacting to isolated incidents and does more harm than good.

"You may have a few bad apples in the ranks of the professorate. You don't indict all white people for the actions of the KKK," she said.

"A few bad apples is exactly why we pass laws," Mitchell said. "We pass laws on robbery, sexual assault and discrimination because of a few bad apples."