A Winning Solution · 21 March 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

Opinion by the Rocky Mountain News, 03/20/04

Remember the hysteria seven months ago when an ill-conceived proposal inspired by conservative firebrand David Horowitz to protect ideological pluralism in academia prompted cries of "McCarthyism" and calls for an investigation? The debate ended this week with a whimper rather than the legislative bang many liberals had feared.

Lawmakers agreed to withdraw House Bill 1315, which had called for an "Academic Bill of Rights." In return, the state's four largest institutions of higher ed - the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the University of Northern Colorado - signed a memorandum of understanding committing themselves to the protection of political diversity on their campuses. Given that the deal accomplishes in principle what the bill set out to do, it looks like a winning solution for both sides.

HB 1315 was never the harsh mandate for political balance in the classroom critics sometimes maintained. For the most part, it was a reasonable attempt to uphold academic freedom by shielding students from viewpoint discrimination - which, contrary to opponents' claims, is hardly unheard of on public colleges and universities.

If HB 1315 erred, and it did, it was in granting a virtual license to students to lodge official complaints against their teachers for violating the bill's vague edict against introducing "controversial matter into the classroom or course work that is substantially unrelated to the subject of study." Under such a restrictive rubric, "academic freedom" began to look suspiciously like an encroachment on the freedoms of the faculty.

In its broad principles, the memorandum of understanding is solid stuff. The colleges agreed to institutionalize their respect for diverse political viewpoints. That includes implementing grievance procedures "to ensure political diversity is explicitly recognized and protected."

The agreement surpassed our expectations, in fact, in promising that each institution would work with student leaders to make certain student fees are used to provide an "open forum" for "all political viewpoints."

Will the deal provide the ideological balance idealists have been seeking? No, but it is much more likely to encourage free speech than to chill it.