Threats to Academic Freedom: Information, Advice, and Links · 15 August 2005

Contents of this Page

1. Background and current complaints
2. Understanding the ABoR and opposition to it
3. What to do if there are ABoR-related incidents on your campus
4. What to do if the ABoR is introduced in your state legislature
5. Resources

1. Background and current complaints.

Columnist David Horowitz, co-founder and president of the Center for Popular Culture, which publishes FrontPage Magazine, is also the founder of Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), a Los Angeles based organization that maintains a Complaint Center where students are invited to post instances of liberal bias they have experienced on the nation's campuses, and of the Discover the Networks website devoted to listing individuals and groups of the political left-including academics, colleges and universities, and campus programs. These initiatives are funded by grants from several foundations. As an antidote to what he sees as liberal indoctrination in the classroom, and to promote diversity that he believes is hampered by discrimination on political, ideological, and religious grounds in academic hiring and promotion, Horowitz devised a legislative proposal called the "Academic Bill of Rights" (ABoR), a version of which sometimes appears as the "Student Bill of Rights," the specific wording of which has evolved in its journey through some sixteen state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.
While the ABoR may have been intended to stop some forms of indoctrination and discrimination, the means it proposes for obtaining that end are harmful. They include redefining academic freedom and altering the structure of accountability in higher education. Further, the impetus for the particular changes envisioned by the ABoR is explicitly political. The diversity and "plurality of methodologies and perspectives" it would require of colleges and universities is measured by political affiliation, not academic judgment. For example, chief among views counted a priori as reflecting liberal prejudice is opposition to the current administration's foreign policy; philosophers teaching in human rights and peace studies programs have been accused of indoctrination by SAF for failing to provide an alternative viewpoint in their courses. Support for abortion rights and environmental legislation, and intolerance of religious faith (e.g., opposition to teaching intelligent design along with evolution) are also considered evidence of liberal bias. The SAF website instructs students in methods for uncovering "Campus Abuses": "1. Research the party registration of faculty members... 2. Research reading lists by finding a sympathetic professor who can provide counsel on titles missing..." (Mission and Strategy V).
On some campuses, faculty members targeted by SAF are now facing "institutional review" and other forms of censure for their published views on these topics. On some other campuses, zealous support for the ABoR has led to SAF- and Young Republican-sponsored vigilante action against faculty perceived as having demonstrated liberal bias: hate-mail campaigns, disruption of instruction by unauthorized cancellation of classes, red-baiting, and the labeling of faculty who oppose the war in Iraq "terrorist sympathizers." Two things are particularly important to note: (1) Overwhelmingly, it is not the targeted faculty members' own students who undertake such action; in many instances, their own students line up in their support. (2) Student vigilantes do not avail themselves of existing grievance procedures.

2. Understanding the ABoR and opposition to it.

The ABoR should be read and analyzed closely because it bears a superficial and misleading resemblance to familiar documents promoting academic freedom and the rights of faculty, most importantly, the AAUP's 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The ABoR cites principles long associated with academic freedom, but changes their implementation to shift responsibility from faculty to government (acting through boards of trustees, administrators, and the courts). The charge of the Committee for the Defense of Professional Rights of Philosophers (Defense Committee) refers explicitly to the 1940 Statement, so the ABoR's reinterpretation of academic freedom is of special concern to the committee. Academic freedom has traditionally referred inter alia to the faculty member's right to set the content and method of her/his courses and research, and to be judged impartially by scholars in her/his disciplinary field through such established procedures as peer review and evaluation, i.e., by the standards of the academic profession.
The Defense Committee opposes both indoctrination and discrimination-more broadly than does the ABoR-and it recognizes that academic freedom includes rights of students as well as faculty. But the committee advises reading the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure statement on the ABoR along with the ABoR itself. The Committee A statement carefully distinguishes principle from implementation, introduces context, provides examples, and points to a number of ways in which the ABoR's requirements would undermine the very principles it espouses. A side-by-side comparison of ABoR language and AAUP commentary, excerpted from the Committee A statement and other AAUP documents, is also useful for analyzing the implications of the ABoR.

3. What to do if there are ABoR-related incidents on your campus.

(a) Report them; like mushrooms, they will grow in the dark. Depending on their type and severity, report them to appropriate campus authorities with the objective of reestablishing a collegial atmosphere for teaching and learning.
(b) Prevent an escalation of irrationality and rhetoric, insofar as possible.
(c) Take steps to ensure that the student grievance process on campus is sound and that students' rights are protected (this is best done in advance of trouble); be sure that students and interested others (journalists, legislators) are aware of the grievance procedures.
(d) If the perpetrators are known, keep dialogue going.
(e) If the rights of faculty are infringed, if classes are disrupted, inform the APA Defense Committee, and the staff of the AAUP Committee A.
(f) Inform your colleagues and your chair.
(g) Be ready to utilize faculty governance structures, faculty newsletters, list-serves, and the media, if required.

4. What to do if the ABoR is introduced in your state legislature.

(a) Inform colleagues of the hidden inconsistencies beneath the uncontroversial-sounding rhetoric of the ABoR.
(b) Working with other faculty, identify key legislators and write to them.
(c) Arm both trustees and administrators with information and arguments to facilitate their crucial role in defending academic freedom to the public.
(d) Write op-ed pieces, utilizing the resources in the next section.
(e) If your campus has an AAUP chapter or a union local (or both) inform yourself about what is already being done and offer assistance.
(f) If there are public hearings, be sure that faculty testimony is heard.
(g) Seek a faculty senate resolution against the legislation; if passed, send a copy to the local newspapers.

5. Resources.

The best place to begin is at the AAUP's Political Intrusions into the Academy website and its numerous links, including articles from a wide range of publications, legal commentary, and AAUP statements: the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students, the Statement on College and University Government, especially Section 5 on faculty, the Statement on Professional Ethics, et al. A student organization opposing the ABoR, the Center for Campus Free Speech maintains a website. Of these resources, the Defense Committee has found the legal commentary especially useful for reminding trustees and administrators of their role in the defense of academic freedom, especially as they interact with the media and the general public in times of campus crisis. Here are a few of the Supreme Court decisions that are sometimes brought to bear on issues raised by the ABoR:

In 1957, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote: "A university is characterized by the spirit of free inquiry, its ideal being the ideal of Socrates-'to follow the argument where it leads.' This implies the right to examine, question, modify or reject traditional ideas and beliefs. Dogma and hypothesis are incompatible, and the concept of an immutable doctrine is repugnant to the spirit of a university." (354 U.S. 234)

Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan said in 1967: "Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom." (385 U.S. 589)

In 1995, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority: "In ancient Athens, and, as Europe entered into a new period of intellectual awakening, in places like Bologna, Oxford, and Paris, universities began as voluntary and spontaneous assemblages or concourses for students to speak and to write and to learn ... The quality and creative power of student intellectual life to this day remains a vital measure of a school's influence and attainment. For the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the nation's intellectual life, its college and university campuses. (515 U.S. 819)

Justice David Souter wrote in concurrence with the judgment of the Court in 2000: "No one disputes that some fraction of students' tuition payments may be used for course offerings that are ideologically offensive to some students, and for paying professors who say things in the university forum that are radically at odds with the politics of various students. Least of all does anyone claim that the University is somehow required to offer a spectrum of courses to satisfy a viewpoint neutrality requirement." (529 U.S. 217)

Background print bibliography includes Richard T. DeGeorge's Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997) which emphasizes the responsibilities attendant on academic freedom and argues for the importance of academic freedom and tenure to free societies; DeGeorge reprints essays by Richard Rorty ("Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions") and John R. Searle ("Rationality and Realism, What Is at Stake?") and includes a useful bibliography. Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger's The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955) provides a sobering catalogue of cases in which faculty were fired for their political views in the days before tenure guaranteed academic freedom. William F. Buckley, in God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of "Academic Freedom" (Chicago: Regnery, 1951), a precedent for Horowitz, criticizes his teachers for persuading students to become "atheistic socialists." For deepest background, one need only think of the West's foremost corrupter of youth, Socrates.

posted June 2005

Read SAF response.