Academic Freedom Abuses Unabated on Campus · 12 December 2005

Guarding Against the Wrong 'Bill of Rights'

Another clutch of university presidents has pledged to toe the line and monitor what is said in the classroom, one way to avoid passage of an Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR). The presidents of eight Ohio universities signed a Resolution on Academic Rights and Responsibilities in October, endorsing "intellectual pluralism," an open, tolerant, civil environment, grading uninfluenced by political opinion, and respect for institutional discretion and autonomy.

Agreements like Ohio's are becoming a popular way for institutions to avoid ABOR, an attempt to legislate equal consideration of all views in the classroom and flush out perceived liberal bias. The legislation has been roundly criticized for chaining faculty to content requirements, sanitizing pedagogy and creating an environment in which teachers fear they will offend students with opinions that, in a stimulating academic setting, should challenge them into critical thinking. But even independent agreements are hazardous, as they can limit faculty autonomy in the classroom and squelch freedom of expression.

Other states where institutions have signed or are considering agreements to maintain "academic freedom" include Colorado, where university presidents signed a memo of understanding and agreed to report regularly to the Legislature, and New York, where trustees are considering a similar resolution.

In Pennsylvania, the ABOR-focused state House Select Committee on Students' Academic Freedom, formed last summer, held its first investigative hearing and got an earful from faculty and students who oppose legislative meddling on state campuses. One of the more salient points came from Rep. Dan Surra, who, after hearing testimony from a provost and others describing on-campus systems already in place to ensure academic freedom, called the inquiry "a colossal waste of time." Not one student testified about political bias. "This is the educational equivalent of the committee searching for Bigfoot," the University Times, at the University of Pittsburgh, quoted Surra saying. "It's plain and simple a witch hunt, looking for a problem so maybe we can create a solution," Rep. John E. Pallone added. The committee has a year before it must report findings and make recommendations for "remedial legislation," and will continue to take testimony. Locals like the Temple Association of University Professionals are working to warn faculty they may be subpoenaed to defend their adherence to "academic freedom," and mobilizing forces to ensure their voices are heard in the capital.

In Florida, the United Faculty of Florida expects ABOR to rise again after the union helped defeat it last year. Union membership has swelled with faculty concerned over legislation they fear could chill academic discourse and scare distinguished colleagues away from the state. UFF's most recent tactic involves a two-sided membership form, with one side for membership information and the other for legislative action.

New York is also watchful of ABOR but has not been troubled by legislative threats. Instead, it is focused on the state board of trustees, which is considering an agreement similar to those in Colorado and Ohio. Such an agreement is unnecessary, say union leaders: A recent State University of New York poll revealed zero formal complaints from students who felt persecuted for their political views. "Not only do we not have any problems, but we also have a mechanism if we had problems to make sure this is all taken care of," says Fred Floss, co-vice president of United University Professions/AFT at SUNY. As UUP president and AFT vice president William Scheuerman says, ABOR "is a solution in search of a problem." [Virginia Myers Kelly]

December 1, 2005