Academic Bill Ensures Fairness · 12 April 2005

By Rep. Stacey Campfield--04/09/05

As soon as news spread about the academic bill of bights, I was immediately visited by 15 college students from Memphis who trekked all the way to Nashville to personally relay their own classroom stories, as well as encourage me to work hard to pass this bill.

And just Tuesday, a group of students traveled from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro to bring news that their Student Senate had voted 33-2 in favor of the student bill of rights.

One student government representative brought stories of the debate, saying how a professor on hand to argue against the bill said "we shouldn't even be discussing this," leaving students wondering to whom did the rights of free speech really apply.

Much criticism has been bandied about regarding this Bill of Rights, criticism such as it will stifle free speech, that the Legislature has no business examining universities or that it will effectively muzzle professors.

But the academic bill of rights, like the Bill of Rights in our U.S. Constitution, is intended to protect freedoms, not take them away. My purpose for introducing this bill is to ensure that diverse viewpoints can flourish in Tennessee's universities.

The bill provides a statewide grievance procedure by which students may seek redress if their academic rights have been violated.

Those who fear this bill will chill classroom debate are only looking at the issue through the eyes of a professor. My bill, which was adopted unanimously as a Republican Caucus position, is intended to protect the free speech of students.

I've received letters, phone calls and e-mails from students telling me their college classroom stories. Some have relayed stories of fear - fear that, if they argue with the professor, their grades will suffer.

They have told stories, such as one student who said his cellular biology teacher took every opportunity possible to bash Republicans - and cellular biology has nothing to do with politics.

One University of Tennessee student relayed the story of how her professor worked on a local campaign, and she worked on the campaign of the opponent.

When her candidate won, she received an F from the professor, despite her straight-A average throughout her college career.

Not failing any of her tests, she feels certain it was retaliation. For cases like this, there should be a procedure in place - a place for a student to go to have his or her grievance heard.

I think representatives from both sides of the political aisle can agree that students should be graded solely on the basis of their knowledge and answers, not on the basis of their religious or political beliefs.

Critics of the bill say there is already a procedure in place to deal with the violations of students' rights, and I have spoken with university administrators about this process. One high-level administrator at UT told me,

"I hope your bill passes."

This dean said there is a procedure in place, but there is no power behind it. Tenure makes it nearly impossible to effectively deal with problems.

Like many problems that plague our society, the crux of the problem is power. As sexual harassment problems in the workplace were not really about sex but about the abuse of power and as whistleblower cases have focused not on the workings of government but about the misuse of power by managers to retaliate against those who report wrongdoing, so too is the academic bill of rights about power.

Professors are in a position of power, and students possess none. All the academic bill of rights proposes to do is provide a grievance procedure to ensure that professors aren't abusing the power they possess.

Taxpayers work hard to finance institutions of higher learning, and so it is only natural and just to expect that their tax dollars will support fair and nondiscriminatory teaching in the classroom. As a state representative, my job is not only to protect universities, faculty and administrators, but it is also to ensure that the taxpayers who finance and use state services receive fair, just and proper treatment.

While cries of oppression are being yelled from liberal enclaves, it is only because universities today lean more left than right. But, if these liberal critics would open their eyes, they will see that the bill protects students no matter what their political or religious beliefs.

The very fact that critics oppose such doctrines of fairness only leaves taxpayers to conclude that universities are acknowledging bias and prefer to keep it that way.

State Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 2002.