Reject Political Agenda in Hiring · 17 December 2003

Filed under: Press Coverage

Reject Political Agenda in Hiring
By David R. Caldwell, Ronald K. Edgerton and Barry Rothaus--Denver Post, 12/18/03

Some conservative politicians in Colorado think that universities in the state are too liberal. They want to have more conservatives become members of university faculties. Their method for achieving this end is to legislate a so-called Academic Bill of Rights and to threaten big-government enforcement in a manner that does violence to the very academic rights they claim to protect.

This is not the first time that universities have been the target of one political faction or another. In the 1960s, they were condemned by anti-war activists for being pillars of the establishment and bastions of conservatism. Today they are criticized by conservative Republicans for being too liberal.

Critics on both sides sometimes lose sight of the purpose and idea of the American university through history and in our time. Frank Rhodes reminds us of that purpose in his book, "The Creation of the Future: The Role of the American University." Universities are, he says, "the conservators of human experience; the custodians and transmitters of the best that has been thought and written, said and done; the embodiment of openness, rational discourse, and experiment. They are also critics of the very knowledge they conserve, and of the society that supports them. Not least, they are the creators of new knowledge, fresh insight, novel techniques, and creative approaches."

Since universities are "critics ... of the society that supports them," it is not surprising that there has always been a struggle for political ownership of academia in American life. Indeed, that is precisely what we are seeing today in the politically inspired attacks on Colorado universities for being too liberal.

A proposal is being developed by Senate President John Andrews with the support of Gov. Bill Owens to address this perceived lack of ideological balance among university faculty members. Cloaking their purpose behind an Academic Bill of Rights devised by conservative commentator David Horowitz, the would-be reformers have argued for "intellectual diversity" in the humanities and social sciences. In point of fact, they are creating a political litmus test for academic hires. Paradoxically, such a test would undermine the first tenet of the Academic Bill of Rights itself, that "no faculty member shall be hired or fired on the basis of their political beliefs."

We believe academic faculties should be staffed with good teachers, regardless of their political beliefs. Good teachers understand the importance of fostering independent, critical thought among students and making universities, to quote Rhodes again, "the embodiment of openness, rational discourse, and experiment."

We agree that our students should not be used as political pawns. Rather, they should be encouraged to develop their own political identities. We endorse the general consensus that higher education should not be an enterprise of indoctrination. Consequently, there are equally compelling reasons for both rejecting a push for targeted political hires in academia and continuing current policies that forbid denial of employment and tenure based on politics or ideology.

Let us reject the political agenda behind the Academic Bill of Rights and continue to ensure that the political or ideological beliefs of faculty and students are irrelevant to their employment and evaluation.

It is possible and even desirable in a free society for the political beliefs of a professor to become known to students, colleagues and others and to become part of the public discourse in the marketplace of ideas. The Academic Bill of Rights itself maintains that "teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views ... ." Certainly good teachers have beliefs, and believers can be good teachers.

The most chilling aspect of the purported Academic Bill of Rights, as articulated by Horowitz and his acolytes, is not what it says. After all, much of its language confirms rights already articulated in the American Association of University Professors Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and codified in official policies adopted by universities across the country.

Students at the University of Northern Colorado, for example, are already guaranteed even more than the rights Sen. Andrews proposes that state government invasively bestow upon them. Among other provisions in UNC's policy manual are the rights of students to "take exception to the data or views presented and reserve judgment about matters of opinion," and to "expect protection, through established procedures, against prejudice or capricious evaluation."

While the content of the Academic Bill of Rights is largely redundant, its coercive implications should offend the sensibilities of more balanced thinkers, whether on the political left or right. The proposed "bill" becomes a danger when its proponents use it to mock the constitutional Bill of Rights. The call for politically selective hiring practices at universities is an assault on independent political thought. It threatens to compromise good teaching by making the ability and opportunity to teach contingent on political belief.

Our students deserve, first and foremost, good teachers - not teachers required to fit a governmentally-determined mold of acceptable "intellectual diversity."

David R. Caldwell, Ronald K. Edgerton and Barry Rothaus are members of the University of Northern Colorado Chapter of the American Association of University Professors.