Penn. Legislature Joins the Fight against Intolerance · 07 July 2005

By Eyana Adah McMillan--The York Dispatch--07/08/05

Local Pennsylvania representatives say they've heard the stories.

College professors strongly stating viewpoints supporting one political party over another. Or showing films maligning a candidate just before an election.

It's one thing to challenge students to think and express their own opinions, said Rep. Ron Miller, R-Jacobus.

However, academic freedom is hindered when professors fail to discuss opposing views, while attempting to make students adopt certain viewpoints, Miller said.

And legislators have heard from students who think they were given unfair grades or treated unjustly because of their political ideologies, Miller said.

He co-sponsored a resolution -- approved Tuesday night by the state House of Representatives, 108-90 -- that calls for the formation of a committee to investigate whatever problems exist at state-owned colleges and universities and then determine if corrective legislation is necessary.

The resolution, which does not need the governor's signature, was proposed by Rep. Gibson Armstrong, R-Lancaster, who said he collected about 50 examples of "intolerance" from college students.

What it says: The resolution says that "students and faculty should be protected from the imposition of ideological orthodoxy," and students should be "graded based on academic merit, without regard for ideological views."

"We've all heard anecdotal stories, so let's find out how much really exists," said Miller, who serves on the House education committee. "Why sit around and guess at it?"

The investigative committee -- composed primarily of the House's higher education subcommittee, plus two appointees -- will make a report of its findings and recommendations by June 30, 2006. If needed, the committee's investigation could extend to Nov. 30, 2006, according to the resolution.

Reps. Beverly Mackereth, R-Spring Grove, and Keith Gillespie, R-Springettsbury Township, said they voted for the resolution.

Miller said the resolution goes "both ways" in ensuring that students with conservative and liberal views are treated fairly by professors.

But Chuck Kennedy, senior instructor of political science at Penn State York, said the House is making a mountain out of a molehill.

He said that while there are some professors who are "zealous" about their views, colleges and universities already have systems in place to deal with student concerns about grades and treatment by professors.

Student complaint procedure: After discussing their complaints with professors, students can take up the issue with directors of both the academic affairs and student affairs, Kennedy said.

"When I had (complaints) as a student, it was my responsibility to go through the mechanism," he said. "If there's a problem with the institution, then outside sources should get involved. It shouldn't be this issue of legislators having to investigate. That's micromanagement."

Miller said the investigative committee will help determine if the institutions' grievance policies are being fully explained to students and to what extent those policies are being enforced.

Gillespie said that while he personally hasn't heard from students with such complaints, he voted in favor of the resolution after listening to hours of debates and hearing other legislators' experiences.

Creating awareness: Mackereth said the resolution is simply a matter of creating more awareness of issues facing students in the state.

Mackereth said she's heard complaints from her daughter about professors showing a negative movie about President George W. Bush just before the election. Also, a son and his friends said they've had professors who presented their own views without presenting both sides of an issue or fostering such discussion from students.

"Every college has a grievance process, but kids aren't probably aware of it," she said. "That's the level it should be handled at, not our level. We're not going into it saying we've got this big problem. But there might be an issue here we need to look at."

In the works since April, the resolution has already drawn opposition from teachers groups, such as the American Association of University Professors.

Who's behind it: One of the driving forces behind the movement is the Students for Academic Freedom, a Washington-based group founded by activist David Horowitz. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, he said the past six months have been a "watershed in the academic-freedom movement" and hopes the movement to monitor teachers for bias will eventually trickle down to public elementary and high schools.

Students for Academic Freedom says its goal is to "end the political abuse of the university and to restore integrity to the academic mission as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge." The group plans to distribute a book called "Unpatriotic University," which tells readers colleges are full of "anti-American rhetoric, and (shut out) conservative points of view both in classrooms and on speakers' platforms."

Much of the Pennsylvania bill was borrowed from the Horowitz group's "academic bill of rights."

Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, referred to the Horowitz group and said the resolution is just "an attempt to respond to a national movement. ... We're just trying to fall in line."

Bill Toland of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau contributed to this report.