Taking Freedom By Force · 14 April 2005

Filed under: Florida, Press Coverage

By James Vanlandingham--Florida Alligator--04/15/05

In 2001, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich published an acclaimed book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America."

Recounting Ehrenreich's attempt to make ends meet while working minimum-wage jobs through 1998, the book peers into the world of America's waitresses, janitors and hotel maids in an era when dot-com millionaires and lionized CEOs captivated national attention.

The New York Times Book Review hailed Ehrenreich as a "premier reporter," and a play based on the book premiered to glowing reviews at the Hippodrome State Theatre last October.

So when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill added the book in 2003 to a summer reading list mandatory for incoming freshmen, little trouble was expected.

In July of that year, a group of students called The Committee for a Better Carolina held a press conference denouncing the book as a "classic Marxist rant" and a work of "intellectual pornography with no redeeming characteristics." The students demanded the book be pulled from the reading list.

The Committee is one of the first local chapters of Students for Academic Freedom, a national group that is pushing "Academic Freedom Bill of Rights" bills like the one filed in Florida by Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala). Similar bills have been filed in at least 16 other states.

Sara Dogan, national campus director for the organization, wrote in September 2003 that the "socialist tract" should not have been assigned to UNC students.

"The University should not be used as a tool of political indoctrination," she wrote. "Independent thinking is discouraged when students are exposed to only one side of complicated political issues such as the role of free markets in the lives of poor Americans."

Over the past two years, the organization has ballooned, and under the leadership of conservative pundit David Horowitz, SAF has founded dozens of chapters across America's university campuses.

Reached on Thursday at the organization's K Street office in Washington, D.C., Dogan said word-of-mouth was the reason SAF had spread so quickly. And while UF doesn't yet have a chapter, several students have contacted her with interest in founding one, she said.

"It's a testament to how much these issues concern people," she said. "We don't call for firing of professors. We're not an ideological organization, not about conservative views or liberal views. We're just trying to promote greater intellectual diversity on campuses."

Dogan said that student members are guided by a handbook available at the group's Web site, www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org.

The handbook advises students forming a new chapter to first secure funding from student governments and supportive faculty and alumni. The students should then "research political bias and classroom indoctrination on [their] campus[es] by interviewing students and making a record of specific incidents."

Leaders should set up Web sites to encourage students to inform on their professors. The handbook cautions, "Be careful to do this honestly and fairly."

The group should note allegations of one-sided reading lists and faculty lecture series. They should "object to the absence of diversity among faculty in a particular department, in class curricula and in classes offered."

Next, they should report examples to the local media and "take a list of these abuses to parents and alumni and solicit funds."

Then go to the university president's office and "demand a redress of grievances, including an apology from the offending authority," the handbook says.

If the university refuses to "take corrective measures," students should notify the press and "make friends with [their] elected representatives on the Education Committees of [their] state Senate or Assembly."

Rep. Baxley is chairman of the House Education Council.

"The maximum pressure point for all academic institutions is the flow of alumni and government funds that support the institution," the handbook says. "Focus your activities on these vulnerable points of the university system. Continue the pressure until the authorities adopt and enforce 'The Academic Bill of Rights.'"

United Faculty of Florida President Tom Auxter, who also is a UF philosophy professor, said SAF's goal is to create "cells" of conservative students who will sign up for courses specifically to monitor what liberal professors say in class.

And if Baxley's bill passes the Legislature, the students could even sue the university and its professors on bias allegations.

While Baxley continues to insist the bill has no causative action, a staff analysis by the Senate Education Committee warns "the bill appears to create a cause of action for students to litigate against the public postsecondary education institution in which they are enrolled."

Moreover, the bill enjoins faculty to teach "all serious scholarly viewpoints" without defining that term. "Accordingly," the report says, "this provision invites student complaints as to the proper pedagogical method employed by the faculty."

The effect of the law, Auxter said, ironically would cause professors to watch their tongues in class while encouraging students to turn classroom debates into CNN's "Crossfire."

"The law would turn academic topics into political topics," Auxter said. "It would change what would happen in the classroom, and everything will be guarded and truncated to prevent controversy."

If a professor failed to take time accommodating each and every student, he would run the risk of being sued, he said.

"It means we'll be taken to court, potentially, if we don't change the nature of academic life."

But changing the nature of academic life is perhaps the burgeoning SAF movement's first priority.

On the SAF Web site, Michael McKnight, who was president of the Carolina committee in 2003, writes that his primary goal is to add "diversity of ideology" as a major factor in deciding which faculty to hire.

The university must "remedy this situation," he wrote, "where every campus department dealing with social issues - from political science to public policy - were filled to the brim with Democrats."