Defending Students' Rights at Brooklyn College · 22 March 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage


by Professor KC Johnson--Brooklyn College Excelsior, 03/22/04

A few weeks ago, The Excelsior brought welcome news of a new group on campus, Students for Academic Freedom. Devoted to ensuring that students feel free to engage in academic discourse, regardless of their political viewpoints, the organization promises to publicize instances of ideological bias in the classroom. It also will promote a Student Bill of Rights, a measure designed to protect students from retaliation for expressing their beliefs.

Although we usually think of the concept as pertaining to the faculty, all Brooklyn College students have a legal right to academic freedom. The college Bulletin-which is a contract between the college and its students-asserts, "The tradition of the University as a sanctuary of academic freedom and center of informed discussion is an honored one, to be guarded vigilantly. The basic significance of that sanctuary lies in the protection of intellectual freedoms: the rights of professors to teach, of scholars to engage in the advancement of knowledge, of students to learn and to express their views, free from external pressures or interference." Therefore, "academic freedom and the sanctuary of the University campus . . . cannot be invoked by those who would subordinate intellectual freedom to political ends or who violate the norms of conduct established to protect that freedom."

The local Students for Academic Freedom chapter, which is soliciting reports of dubious classroom practices at saf4bc@yahoo.com, forms part of a broader national movement seeking to restore intellectual diversity on college campuses. Two generations ago, in the height of the McCarthy era, the chief threat to academic freedom came from the right. Now, however, it seems to come from an intolerant permutation of left-wing thought, which holds that those perceived as "conservative" or even who teach subjects perceived as "conservative" need to be purged from the academy; and that the best way to create a new generation of social activists is to ensure that students receive only one side when taking classes on issues that relate to contemporary political debates.

A few examples of the pattern: at Duke, the chair of the philosophy department was asked about figures showing that, in humanities departments, registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by almost 20-to-1. His response? "We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire." At St. Lawrence University, a sociology professor lambasted the "Fascist, Racist College Republicans" for not denouncing matters such as "the Saddam s---" (the liberation of Iraq) and "economic policies that favor rich, white f---s" (tax cuts). A Connecticut College professor of romance languages recently penned a New York Times op-ed complaining that since her students seemed insufficiently opposed to the war in Iraq, she would adjust her future syllabi to focus less on academic matters and more on what she termed "wakeful political literacy."

These professors, and those who similarly believe that their academic positions entail a responsibility to teach "wakeful political literacy," seem unlikely to foster an environment tolerant of divergent viewpoints. Ferreting out ideological bias in the classroom, however, can be very difficult: the examples above notwithstanding, few professors provide first-hand testimony.

Outsiders can examine syllabi to determine whether a professor seems more inclined to teach his or her own views about contemporary political issues rather than the subject matter of the course-but this option is available only for those faculty members who post their syllabi on-line. Or, as Daniel Tauber's op-ed in the Excelsior two weeks ago pointed out, occasionally public documents from curricular programs can reveal an unmistakable ideological bias. An example is Brooklyn's own "Arts of Democracy" project, an 11-course cluster that purports to teach that "democracy" entails fidelity to a multicultural political agenda.

In the end, however, students themselves must work to create a campus that respects academic freedom. A few organizations already exist to help. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a campus free speech organization, has published guides on how to combat attempts to squelch free exchange on campus. Noindoctrination.org publishes student accounts of classroom intolerance (after the website coordinator verifies the submissions for accuracy). Two courses at Brooklyn have received noindoctrination.org postings: descriptions of both reveal a troubling degree of ideological bias in the course content and pedagogy, with the accounts strengthened by the fact that-in both instances-the professor in question declined the website's offer to post a response challenging the student's version of events.

Since September 2001, we've heard a lot at Brooklyn about "diversity," but the academic administration has displayed little or no interest in intellectual diversity. Indeed, in a September 2003 interview with former Excelsior editor Yehuda Katz, the provost expressed no concern with professors using in-class speech codes-a tactic that has generated lawsuits at several institutions (most recently the University of South Carolina) and seems to violate the commitment to student academic freedom outlined in the Bulletin.

Perhaps the establishment of Students for Academic Freedom signals a new direction, especially since Judaic Studies Department Chairperson Sara Reguer has signed on as its faculty advisor. At least, however, the organization can provide a resource to students concerned about ideological bias in the classroom but uncertain about how to proceed. Few of us-students or faculty-would publicly defend the proposition that professors should use their classroom to promote a specific ideological agenda informed by their own personal viewpoint on current political events. To the extent that Students for Academic Freedom can bring instances of such abuse to general attention and promote a climate in which such teaching methods are not tolerated, the organization will help create a campus that respects the principle of intellectual tolerance.