Bill Could Chill Discourse in Colleges · 14 April 2005

Filed under: Florida, Press Coverage

Bill Could Chill Discourse in Colleges

TC Palm--04/15/05

The exchange of opinions - sometimes controversial - among students and faculty has long been a hallmark of the college educational experience.

In recent years, however, conservatives have pointed to surveys they say show that universities have become havens for liberalism and that contrary views have been stifled and even punished.

Part of their claim was bolstered with a report issued in late March compiled by professors at George Mason University, Smith College and the University of Toronto. The report found that 72 percent of professors at U.S. universities identified themselves as liberal while 15 percent identified themselves as conservative. The results were based on a national survey of 1,643 faculty members from 183 four-year colleges.

Another part of their claim was bolstered when conservative commentators David Horowitz, William Kristol and Pat Buchanan had food thrown at them during speaking engagements at three different colleges.

Horowitz has been leading a campaign to have states adopt legislation to protect students from unfair treatment by their professors because of their political beliefs. The legislation also would allow students to file grievances if they object to what they perceive as political bias in course offerings. Recently, Horowitz addressed Florida legIslators, who are considering a bill, filed by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, that would do just that.

Dubbed an "academic bill of rights," the legislation represents more intrusive meddling by the Legislature in the state's university system and could have a chilling effect on academic freedom and intellectual discourse. In essence, it could put students in charge of course content rather than professors.

There are better alternatives. Colleges already have guidelines established to protect the rights of students and faculty, and mechanisms for filing grievances. Those policies should be enforced, and students should be fully informed of their rights.

Colleges also must be sensitive to a balance of opinions and positions when hiring and promoting faculty members.

Next week, Baxley is scheduled to meet with Florida's university presidents to discuss his bill and their policies. Ideally, they can agree without a state statute that could do more harm than good for the educational integrity of the state's schools.

Colleges should be a haven for healthy debate and challenging concepts - not students who file suits against professors or throw food at those with whom they disagree.