Princeton Student Seeks Freedom of Academic Ideas with New Club · 28 March 2004

Christian Burset--Daily Princetonian, 03/29/04

A prominent campus conservative, Evan Baehr '05, the former editor of The Tory, is starting a program he says tries to protect ideological minorities, promote a range of opinions and encourage intellectual inquiry.

Baehr has established the Princeton chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, a national, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting a diversity of opinions in higher education. Concerned about "political or ideological bias on campus," Baehr said he hopes to work with students, faculty and administration toward "improving overall campus debate."

Baehr said his concern is that the intellectual culture in the University, especially among faculty, has an overwhelming tendency towards liberalism. Because of this, he said he worries the ideological climate could erode the beliefs of conservative students. Baehr said SAF will help "at risk" conservatives "preserve and protect the belief system they brought to the University."

But Baehr argues conservatives are not the only ones who would benefit from hearing their views defended.

"Outspoken liberals . . . are [currently] not given a reasonable counterargument," which stunts their own intellectual and ideological growth, he said.

As a national organization, SAF takes an aggressive tone. Its web site, www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org, charges academia with intolerance to the point of "political abuse."

Baehr, however, hopes to avoid the "fairly combative approach" he said has characterized some other SAF chapters. In his first letter to potential SAF members, he wrote, "We accept the support from [the national] organization timidly; David Horowitz, the group's founder, is a bit radical for our tastes."

Despite Baehr's criticism, the national organization supports Princeton's chapter. Sara Dogan, SAF's national campus director, wrote in an email, "Our campus chapters are free to conduct their affairs as they see fit as long as they don't go against the key principles of our organization."

Baehr plans to begin SAF's work by "speak[ing] with every single Princeton professor in an attempt to both hear from them about successful ways to promote academic freedom, and to share our concerns with them and let them know about our group's mission," he said.

Later, probably in early April, he plans to publish a report on academic freedom at the University, which would include SAF's goals, its action plan and a survey of students' experiences. Baehr said he also plans to collect anecdotes from students about professors who do and do not respect diverse opinions. In order to protect students and avoid embarrassing professors, these anecdots would be anonymous.

"It's not about trying to make people feel threatened or that we're some kind of watchdog," he said.

Finally, Baehr said he intends to examine the University's approach to admissions and hiring. Although he hopes the University will eventually adopt a kind of "intellectual affirmative action," he acknowledged the goal as a tentative one that would require significant institutional change.

Despite his plans for improving the University, Baehr said he thinks Princeton is already in a better position than most of academia.

"The higher caliber of [Princeton's] professors and administrators" means they are "more likely to be open-minded and willing to entertain all kinds of ideas," he said.

Jonathan Eastvold GS agreed with Baehr's assessment of the University. Although he said there are exceptions, he felt that professors were open-minded "in the vast majority" of his experience at the University, and that he felt "no undue pressure" to conform to his professors' opinions.

Even so, Eastvold, a self-described moderate conservative, sees room for improvement.

"I'm a believer in the free marketplace of ideas," he said. "In an open field . . . the truth will come out."