It's Academic · 04 April 2005

Filed under: Maine, Press Coverage

By Justin Ellis--Portland Press Herald--04/04/05

When your political persuasion feels like a dirty little secret, that could mean something's wrong.

Take the example of Mia Dow, a 22-year-old senior at University of Maine at Orono.

She's a studio art major who grew up in Aroostook County and followed her brother in going to UMaine. But being on campus isn't always that friendly. Dow has been taunted by peers and questioned by professors. It's gotten to the point where she's careful not to share too much about herself with others.

Why?

She's a College Republican.

"I'm very cautious with who I reveal my political party to because I'm scared I am going to be discriminated against because of my Republican Party affiliation," she said.

Discrimination - be it on race, creed, gender, or who you choose to be with - we can admit is not a good thing. But now young conservatives want to add political persuasion to that list.

Last week Maine's College Republicans backed a new bill before the Legislature that would establish an "Academic Bill of Rights."

In not-so-legal terms, the bill would require public universities to create a document that says all students and faculty should be free to speak their political or philosophical piece without fear of retaliation.

The bill is not entirely original. National conservative groups have brought similar proposals to state legislatures in Florida, Georgia and California, among others.

Young Republicans say universities have become havens for liberals and conservatives are being pushed to the fringes. They say they don't get the funding for projects or the speakers they want and that all they're looking for is, well, equality.

Some on the left say the bill is a political ploy could end up hurting free speech on campuses.

"It's somewhat of a widespread problem with a dominant ideology on campus ... a problem when the dominant idealogy has the ability to squash and deter other ideologies" said Dan Schuberth, 21, a political science major at Bowdoin College.

Schuberth, state chairman of the Maine College Republicans, feels the threat is real and should be taken seriously. Just last year, Schuberth says, he was called a "Nazi" because of his views. In the past the college had spoken out against hate crimes and discrimination in areas of race and gender. When he asked Bowdoin to make a statement about ideological discrimination, the response from the administration wasn't the same, he said.

Not so fast, says Alex Cornell du Houx, another Bowdoin student. Unlike sex or race, political ideology isn't something you are born with and may not be deserving of special protection, he said.

Du Houx said both major parties have a fairly strong presence on campuses in Maine and that the debate between the two is more than healthy. So he's a little skeptical of the bill.

"I would say this bill is a political maneuver by the Republican party not to create equality, but to advertise their views," he said.

He's co-president of the Bowdoin College Democrats.

Du Houx said most colleges and universities have a handbook and rules of conduct that students can use if they feel slighted or sense any problem with professors. If that's not enough he points to the U.S. Constitution and the Maine Constitution, which also provide protection.

If there's one thing they all agree on, its that college should be a place where different ideas flow as freely as drinks after finals. But what about professors? Have universities become nesting grounds for liberals?

"There is a perception - that is quite frankly accurate - that most college professors are politically liberal," said Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Government Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.

That said, Maisel thinks most professors know they have a responsibility bigger than their personal beliefs.

"The number of fields where political views are relevant is small," he said. "I think the people in those fields are determined to bend over backwards to present the other side."

Maisel admits up-front to his students that he is a Democrat and realizes that's important in his politics and government classes. He said the bottom line in his courses is about presenting the best argument.

"It would be absolutely wrong if I said to those students whose views are different than mine, 'You're wrong,' " he said. "What's important is how they get to their decisions, not the decision."

He said anything that could get in the way of a professor's ability to teach issues - even ones that offend and challenge students - would be wrong to impose.

For the moment, at least, it looks as if free speech is working for both sides.

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380 or at jellis@pressherald.com