U. Montana Senate Adopts Student Bill of Rights · 22 March 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Curtis Wackerle--Montana Kaimin, 03/22/04

The ASUM Senate adopted a resolution last week that attempts to define academic freedom for students and establishes guidelines for the diversification of viewpoints in the classroom.

The resolution, known as the Student Bill of Rights, passed 11-10 Wednesday night.

At the heart of the resolution is a drive to end what some senators call intellectual and political indoctrination of students by professors. The document asks faculty members to "avoid taking unfair advantage of the student's immaturity by indoctrinating them with the teacher's own opinions before the student has had the opportunity to fairly examine other opinions upon the matters in question."

Resolution co-author Sen. Will Holmes said students need to be exposed to dissenting opinions to get a true education.

"All we are doing is amplifying students' right to an education," he said. "The ideals of critical intelligence, diversity, openness, pluralism and fairness . . . are fundamental rights of every student in every classroom."

Holmes gave an example of a situation from one of his sociology classes, in which he says there was not a fair discussion of a topic. The class was discussing Title IX, the federal law that requires equal spending on male and female athletics in public institutions. The instructor supported the law, but when Holmes brought up arguments against Title IX - such as the absence of a female sport with the same roster size and scholarship funding requirements as football - Holmes said the instructor brushed his viewpoint aside.

"I think (the instructor) had the obligation of discussing the topic thoroughly," he said.

The resolution also states:

• "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."

• "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."

A majority of the resolution's text was taken directly from the Web site of a group called Students for Academic Freedom, founded by conservative pundit David Horowitz.

Some senators were suspicious of the origins of the document.

"We should distance ourselves as much as possible from Horowitz," Sen. Chris Healow said, citing the political baggage associated with Horowitz. "Something about (the resolution) in its very essence makes me uneasy."

Sen. Rob Welsh questioned whether a student doing shoddy work would take advantage of the resolution to accuse professors of being unfair.

"How will the University protect itself from frivolous accusations?" he asked.

Many professors agreed it is important to present many different ideas in the classroom.

"The whole point of college is the free exchange of ideas," broadcast journalism professor Bill Knowles said. Knowles is chairman of the Faculty Senate, which may debate the resolution sometime in the future. Knowles questioned whether the Faculty Senate would go along with the ASUM resolution.

"I don't think there should be a faculty resolution that suggests a professor should be muzzled," Knowles said.

But Holmes asserts the resolution is not about restricting the rights of professors, rather, it is about protecting the rights of students.

"All it is, is an extension of students' academic freedom," he said.

Liberal studies professor Paul Dietrich said professors should be allowed to express their own viewpoints but that they should do so in a careful and professional manner.

"Faculty shouldn't pretend they have no opinions, but it should be appropriate," he said.

To achieve this, when offering their own opinions, especially on politically controversial issues, faculty members should explicitly separate regular course material from opinion and encourage the expression of other perspectives in such a way that the class will feel comfortable expressing different points of view, Dietrich said.

"It is the duty of faculty to acquaint students with the spectrum of scholarly opinion," he said.