Academic Freedom Movement Makes Inroads in Minnesota · 18 October 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Robert Barnett--Minnesota Family Council--10/15/04

Cultivated by conservative grievances against university education, a new, self-proclaimed student academic watchdog group has begun to emerge at campuses around the country amid what appears to be skepticism from many college professors.

Founded in 2003, Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) is a student organization whose goals are to ensure that college teachers present controversial subjects in a balanced manner, that instructors do not interject their opinions about contemporary political issues when current events are not applicable to the course material, that students aren't penalized in grading for their political viewpoints, and that professors are hired irrespective of their political or religious philosophy.

The Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a Los Angeles activist organization run by veteran conservative thinker David Horowitz, is SAF's parent organization that has overseen its development.

Horowitz has continuously deplored what he sees as pervasive liberal bias at universities, describing it in a February 2004 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education as an "unwarranted intrusion of faculty members' political views into the classroom. That corrosive trend has caused some academics to focus merely on their own partisan agendas and to abandon their responsibilities as professional educators."

Sara Dogan, SAF national campus director in Washington, D.C., said the group seeks to foster "intellectual diversity" on college campuses, adding that "we have found many students are afraid to express religious or political views either in class or on campus and that the education they are receiving is very one-sided in the array of views they are receiving."

Dogan emphasized that while SAF has its founding roots in Horowitz's conservative beliefs and critiques, SAF is a non-political organization that seeks to foster greater academic freedom for all students, including those with liberal viewpoints who may feel mistreated by conservative teachers. "We're not a conservative organization trying to move academia in a conservative direction. We welcome all students. But a lot of discrimination is often that conservative views are excluded."

SAF works toward its goals by lobbying school officials to adopt explicit policies that are intended to safeguard the existence of a broad spectrum of thinking as well as pursuing official complaints within the university system on behalf of students alleging academic wrongdoing..

SAF sports 135 chapters at various schools, Dogan said, though she noted that only some are official, university-recognized student groups, while others are at various, informal start-up stages. In Minnesota, SAF has chapters at University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, Minnesota State University in Mankota, St. Olaf College in Northfield, and St. Cloud State University.

"What I see has happened is universities have become bastions of liberalism," said Chad Greskowiak, a recent St. Cloud State graduate who has served as that school's SAF contact person. He said that while St. Cloud State is not as rife with liberal bias as some other universities and that many liberal-oriented professors are fair-minded professionals, some engage in political demagoguery against conservative thinking.

One example Greskowiak cited was an instructor who issued a multiple choice question on a test asking which country doesn't belong with the
others: Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the United States, and Canada. The professor, he said, identified Canada as the correct answer.

Also citing similar concerns is Amy Joe Pierce, a University of Minnesota undergraduate who represents SAF at that school. "Professors in the social sciences tend to be liberal and their classes are filled with liberal ideology instead of class content. They don't present conservative views."

Casting a wary eye on SAF is the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a trade organization for college professors. A March 2004 AAUP statement disputed SAF's understanding of the principle that professors should not introduce controversial ideas or opinions not relevant to a class, citing the contention that a professor could, for example, properly discuss current events to draw comparisons to historical incidents being presented in a history class.

In addition, AAUP has also expressed objections that SAF's efforts may compel professors to convey academically marginal and disreputable ideas and force university administrators to hire dubious academics such as a Nazi philosophy professor.

Wayne Wolsey, a chemistry professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, who is a leading figure in the AAUP's Minnesota Conference, said education techniques such as drawing comparisons between present political situations and historic conditions, as well as requiring students to develop arguments for an opinion they may not agree with can be appropriate and valuable tools to foster critical thinking skills.

"I think they [SAF] have good and honorable intentions, but students are still learning and they may not always know what a professor is trying to do with a class," Wolsey said. "They seem to point out and overemphasize the political leanings of faculty. There could be isolated incidents that are valid concerns that are overlooked, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there is widespread injustice going on."

Katherine Kersten, a senior fellow at Center for the American Experiment, a conservative, Minneapolis-based think tank, said the center gives strong praise to SAF, saying that the student group "focuses on the need for colleges to return to their education mission and in broadening the marketplace of ideas so that classes are not used for partisan or polemical purposes but to advance a liberal arts education."

Robert Gambone of the University of Minnesota's Humanities Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, declined to be interviewed. Also declining comment was Julie Lund on behalf of the university's Humphrey Institute for Public Policy.