The University Needs the Academic Bill of Rights · 21 January 2004

January 21, 2004

The Colorado legislature is weighing adoption of an Academic Bill of Rights , aimed at reopening the intellectual marketplace of its state university system. The brainchild of conservative activist David Horowitz, the ABR, among other things, prohibits discrimination against faculty and students on purely political or religious grounds, declares that students should be exposed to a range of opinion on matters of significant scholarly dispute, asks that campus speaker programs include a variety of viewpoints, and urges that a plurality of methodologies and perspectives be an aim of personnel policy in the humanities and social sciences.

In drafting the ABR, Horowitz sought, received, and liberally relied on the advice of scholars representing a surprising range of philosophic and "culture-war" positions. (I was one of them.) The outcome, in my opinion, has been a clear and judicious restatement of academic precepts long deemed obvious, but now too often honored in the breach. (A good many of its provisions draw their inspiration from the 1915 Declaration of Principles, the long forgotten founding document of the AAUP.)

Few scholars I've talked to disagree with this assessment, but several have expressed apprehensions about the propriety of the ABR as a statement of legislative policy. Their doubts revolve around fears of politicizing academic policy, encouraging legislative micromanagement, and provoking a "backlash". Although each qualm stands on reasonable ground, and serves as a caution against avoidable danger, none, I believe, comprises an objection to action. Quite the contrary, legislative support of the ABR offers a chance to effect overdue reforms in the best way possible -- by concentrating the academic mind on its need to retain public trust.

To the extent that legislatures have a legitimate sphere of oversight with regard to public universities, and exercise it responsibly, the charge of politicization must fail. Few would deny that such oversight is appropriate on fiscal and managerial questions. When it comes to how public monies are spent, public institutions can't avoid accounting to the taxpayer.

But does this accountability also extend to things academic? Since the purpose for which taxpayers endow universities is academic, the answer, in principle, must also be "yes". Having created public universities, legislators can't allow them to default on their educational and research obligations. The issue remaining is then a prudential one: how is academic oversight to be responsibly conducted?

Surely, this is a delicate matter. Academic freedom is founded on the supposition that the discriminations between true and false, substantial and trifling, which inform good teaching and research are best left to the experts. But though this supposition is generally sound, it is not unfailing. One needn't be a sociologist of knowledge to recognize that scholars have vested interests, and may prefer them to their duty when opportunity allows. Derelictions can range from a simple failure to perform, as when classes aren't taught, students aren't advised, or research isn't done; through the subordination of teaching objectives to research agendas, as when courses of broad import are neglected in favor of those reflecting specialized inquiry; to the use of the classroom for political indoctrination and recruitment. And when these occur, something or someone must be there to attempt remediation.

Although the existence of academic delinquencies is admitted, university representatives typically respond that the community of scholars can police itself more safely and effectively than any outsider. Hence, the function should be solely its own. The force of this claim, which would spark amusement emanating from any other group of experts, rests almost entirely on the unique prestige that natural science has acquired as a self-regulating intellectual system. But the prestige of the natural sciences depends on more than simple assertion. It derives from repeated and palpable achievement that the whole world readily comprehends.

Unfortunately, the humanities and social sciences, less rigorous and more passion laden, present a different picture. Although they produce good work, vicious circles, rather than benignly self-correcting ones, can much more readily take hold within them. The spread of an ideological monoculture through broad reaches of academe is the prime example. One waits, of course, at length if need be, for remedial action to be taken within the university. By far the best course would be for something like the ABR to be adopted by a faculty senate or governing board. But when that doesn't happen, as thus far it has not, legislative initiative presents a last, but legitimate, alternative.

Obviously, legislatures shouldn't design syllabi, or hire and promote professors. Nor should they set "goals and timetables", or second-guess specific university decisions. Nothing pointed, protracted, or "inquisitorial" is warranted. Moreover, legislatures must keep in mind that in academic life qualities like fairness and balance are, of necessity, somewhat elusive. But with respect to humane learning, lawmakers should at least be able to recognize the presence of intellectual openness. Or, more to the point, they should be able to detect its glaring absence.

Open eyes constitute due diligence, not micromanagement. In that light, the ABR's approval would simply signal a recovery of clear-sightedness. Passed, as it should be, in the form of a resolution expressing the "sense of the legislature" -- rather than a binding statute -- the ball of redress would be placed squarely in the university's court, with subsequent rounds of normal legislative activity left to determine how well it is played. Agreeability to future university requests would, in part, hinge on the answer.

So far, academe's reaction to the ABR has been the predictable conjury. Apparitions of McCarthy are summoned by professors and deans, who -- in some cases -- could have taught the senator a thing or two about the shortest way with dissent. They count upon an intellectual reflex, now deeply engrained among the college-educated, that legislators are a loutish breed who, when roused, will trample the groves of academe and the poor, unworldly innocents dwelling therein. Although these stereotypes are a tad out of date, they still retain some traction -- even among lawmakers. The backlash ploy thus could work. In the face of name calling, legislators may decide to let sleeping dogs lie.

Yet this would not leave the situation much worse off than before. By contrast, a courageous legislative statement of principle could mark a major breakthrough. As goes the state of Colorado, so may go others.

Sources of internally driven academic reform, though sorely depleted and fairly impotent by themselves, still exist and can be rallied. Given an opportunity, they could reveal to the university academically legitimate escape routes from the ideological cul-de-sac into which it's wedged. But the university will first need to discover a self-interest in listening to neglected voices. Enter the ABR.