Bates College Students Endorse ABOR · 12 June 2005

Filed under: Maine, Press Coverage

By Beth Quimby--Portland Press Herald--06/11/05

A battle is brewing at Bates College.

Both conservative Republican and liberal Democratic students are gearing up for ideological battle over what constitutes academic freedom at the Lewiston campus when they return this fall.

The two groups are at odds over the student government's passage of a resolution supporting an academic bill of rights for the college. The unanimous vote on May 23 - a few days before the end of the school year - involved just 12 of the college's 60 student representatives.

The vote put Bates in a group of eight colleges and universities across the country with resolutions based on conservative-activist David Horowitz' model for an academic bill of rights. It also thrusts Maine into the national debate between Horowitz supporters, who say there is a liberal bias in college classrooms, and opponents, who say his document could stifle speech and smacks of political grandstanding.

The debate was the focus of Bowdoin President Barry Mills' baccalaureate address last month when he defended the diversity of views on his Brunswick campus. The Bates' resolution is sure to erupt into heated campus-wide discussion next fall, say faculty and staff at the private Lewiston college.

Horowitz' model calls on colleges and universities to encourage diverse religious and political views in their faculties, students, curriculums, and reading lists. It is being promoted by the Students for Academic Freedom, a national group founded by Horowitz.

The measure has been considered by about 18 state legislatures, including Maine's, in the past two years. Although none passed it, Colorado's major public universities agreed this year to work toward instituting parts of the Horowitz document, after a bill passed the state's House Education Committee. The Georgia Senate passed a resolution based on the academic bill of rights last year.

While the Bates measure is not binding, its supporters say it will send a message and protect students with conservative viewpoints from being graded lower than their liberal classmates.

Opponents say the academic bill of rights is redundant because Maine colleges and universities already have extensive policies to safeguard academic speech.

The student government's adoption of the academic bill of rights was a surprise not only to those who pushed the measure, but to faculty and staff.

Brian McNulty, director of communications at Bates, said most of the Bates community was unaware of the resolution because it was passed with just a few days left in the school year.

"Bates is known internationally for its debate program, and I'm sure it will get the airing it needs, probably when classes start again in September," he wrote in an e-mail.

Jill Reich, dean of the faculty, said the resolution fits with Bates' policies, procedures and philosophies.

"If the students wanted to pass it and think it is important, that is fine," said Reich, who had not heard from any faculty members about the resolution.

James Richter, chairman of the Bates political science department, acknowledged that there is a perception among conservative students that their views are not as valued as liberal viewpoints, but it is unfounded.

"Our faculty in general is extremely responsible, and they will continue to be extremely responsible," said Richter, who expects both sides to mobilize around the issue when classes resume in the fall.

Sophomore Nathaniel Walton, head of the Bates College Republicans, said bias against conservative points of view are prevalent on the Bates campus. For example, he said, his class on presidential politics contained only negative reading materials and discussions about presidents Reagan and Bush.

"I hear stories from upperclassmen who experienced it much more," said Walton, of Marblehead, Mass., who is working for the Massachusetts Republican Party this summer.

Critics of the measure point out that only one-fifth of Bates' student representatives were on hand for the vote, and it does not represent the views of most students. Ryan Nabulsi, president of Bates College student government, who was not present, called the resolution silly and hypocritical.

"I think this makes us look like brats," said Nabulsi.

He said it sends a message to the faculty that they are not doing their jobs correctly, which he said is not the case. Nabulsi grew up in conservative southern Georgia, where he said there is a large bias against liberalism.

Efforts to pass an academic bill of rights on other Maine college campuses have been unsuccessful. A proposal in the Maine Legislature would have imposed a bill of rights on Maine's public universities and colleges. But after hours of impassioned testimony in March, the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee rejected the measure on an 11-2 vote.

Jesse Wertheim of Kennebunk, a sophomore and student-government member at the University of Maine in Orono, said the academic bill of rights has not yet surfaced there.

Late in the school year the student senate granted money to Republicans on campus to pay for a visit by Horowitz next fall.

Bowdoin Republicans failed in an attempt to put an academic freedom resolution before the student government this spring, claiming the Bowdoin Democrats maneuvered to keep it off the agenda.

Alexander Linhart, a senior from Purchase, NY, said Bowdoin needs an academic bill of rights to balance the left-wing politics of some professors.

"Professors go on rants about the president and things like that. It is not the most open environment," said Linhart, an intern this summer in investment banking at J.P. Morgan.

Bowdoin Democrats in the student senate said there was just too much other work before the senate to consider the resolution before the end of the school year. They vow to fight Republican efforts to promote Horowitz' bill of rights across the state.

"Republicans are good at complaining at every little thing," said Alex Cornell du Houx, a co-president of the Bowdoin Democrats and student-government member.

Beth Quimby is a staff writer for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald.