Taking the Cause of the Academic Rights of the Right · 28 May 2005

Filed under: Florida, Press Coverage

Taking the Cause of the Academic Rights of the Right

The Students for Academic Freedom aim to make it more comfortable for conservative college students to thrive in a liberal arts atmosphere.

By Anita Kumar--St.Petersburg Times--05/29/05

WASHINGTON - Across the nation, liberal professors are being accused of abusing their conservative students by humiliating them in classes, lowering their grades, forcing them to listen to radical leftist views.

Some lawmakers want to even the score. They want to forbid professors from bashing President Bush, mandate that they teach creationism alongside evolution and require them to explain in history class that some doubt the Holocaust existed.

In California, legislators considered an academic bill of rights, an eight-point credo designed to increase political diversity in the classroom. The same declaration was debated in Maine. And in Florida and 12 other states. Congress also is considering something similar.

The proposals are alike because a single group is behind the national effort: Students for Academic Freedom.

It's the latest crusade for David Horowitz, political activist and head of the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture.

Run by Horowitz, 66, and three other people - none of them students - Students for Academic Freedom has encountered fierce opposition from faculty and administrators, who accuse outsiders of trying to dictate the number of Republican and Democratic professors on campus.

Universities are undergoing a conservative resurgence by students. An already deeply divided nation is even more so at a time of war and terrorism. Several professors have made headlines with recent controversial statements.

"I've changed the dynamics," Horowitz said from his Los Angeles home. "I've introduced a game plan here that is effective. This will work."


* * *

K Street in downtown Washington is the address of some of the capital's most powerful lawyers and lobbyists, who trade access for millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

In a tiny, cramped room tucked in the National Hispanic Medical Association on K Street near the White House are the D.C. offices, such as they are, of Students for Academic Freedom. From here, 26-year-old Sara Dogan rallies college students and helps them organize for the fight ahead.

Booklets instructing students on the campaign are piled on a shelf, alongside a stack of the academic bill of rights. Copies of Horowitz's books line another shelf.

As national campus director for Students for Academic Freedom, Dogan has helped launch 150 campus chapters in almost every state, though some have only one or two students. The University of Florida, Florida State University and Florida International University have chapters. The University of North Florida is starting one, too.

Horowitz formed the group in the fall of 2003 after hearing story after story about conservative thinkers belittled or shut out of classroom discussions, graduate programs, even tenure. He says he spent a year trying to talk to administrators about the problem but got nowhere.

The group's motto is: "You can't get a good education if they are only telling you half the story."

"These practices are out of control and are outrageous," he said. "These are just professors so unprofessional they can't keep political agendas out of the classroom."

Horowitz grew up in the McCarthy era, in a heavily communist neighborhood in New York City where his father taught school and he attended a Communist Party-run summer camp for kids. Horowitz grew up to be a leader in what was called the "New Left," editing the magazine Ramparts, an influential left-wing publication.

In the 1970s, he abandoned the left after he decided the anti-Vietnam War movement was wrong and after his friends continued to defend the Black Panthers after he came to believe they murdered his friend Betty Van Patter, a bookkeeper for the group.

In the 1980s, Horowitz founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which runs an online journal, Frontpagemag.com, and an online database, discoverthenetworks.org, which tries to list all the people and groups that make up "the left."

The center gets its money from conservative foundations and 35,000 donors; it gave more than $300,000 to Students for Academic Freedom in 2003, according to the most recent tax records available.

Lately, most of Horowitz's energy has been focused on colleges. He has crisscrossed the nation, speaking on campuses three or four times a week and testifying at legislative committees. In his spare time, he is writing a book about academic freedom.

His "bill of rights" is modeled on 1940 academic freedom principles written by the American Association of University Professors. It has been rewritten to be about students, not professors.

But the professors' association and others in academia are opposed; they say Students for Academic Freedom will limit free speech in the classroom by intimidating professors into avoiding controversial topics.

Mark Smith, AAUP's director of government relations, described the bill of rights as an outside intrusion designed to make campuses more politically equal. "Political balance is different from academic balance," he said.

Horowitz accuses the media and opponents of waging a "malicious campaign" against him. "What you get is lies, lies, lies," he said. "I didn't think it would be quite this vitriolic and dishonest."

In April, a student threw a pie in his face as he gave a speech in Indiana. That same month Gov. Jeb Bush called Horowitz a "fighter for freedom."

Several national studies are on Horowitz's side, showing that liberal professors outnumber conservative professors on campuses. This year for the first time, universities made the list of top organizations ranked by employees' contributions to a presidential candidate, John Kerry, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Horowitz traces the problem to college students who grew up during the anti-Vietnam War movement and stayed on campus as professors.

Since Horowitz formed Students for Academic Freedom, students have logged more than 1,000 complaints. Many of the allegations can't be proven or come down to a student's word against a professor's word.

"It's humiliating," said 20-year-old Mary Moloney, an FSU junior who was upset when she said an exam asked if President Bush was responsible for the 2001 terrorists attacks. "The professor's belief brings down your credibility."


* * *

Florida Rep. Dennis Baxley attended a conservative conference in St. Louis last summer where Horowitz spoke about academic freedom. The message struck a chord. After talking to Horowitz, Baxley introduced a bill in the Florida Legislature.

Like others around the nation, Baxley's bill would have given students the right to object if their professors discussed controversial issues irrelevant to a class. It also would have required student fees to be spent on a "viewpoint-neutral basis."

Fifteen states considered similar bills in the past two legislative cycles. None passed.

In Georgia, the Senate approved it but the House did not. In Colorado, lawmakers abandoned it after university leaders promised to review student rights and grievance procedures.

In Florida, Baxley said he plans to keep talking to university administrators and the Board of Governors, which oversees higher education. He said he probably will file a similar bill next year.

"We set off a grassfire of education," said Baxley, who also introduced a bill to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo. "When you file a bill like that, no one knows where it's going to go."

In Congress, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., introduced a similar bill that is included in this year's Higher Education Act, which deals with all things higher education.

"College is a time when you form your own opinions about the issues that affect our society," said Kingston, who wants the Ten Commandments posted in the House and Senate chambers. "If our students are not shown the whole picture, they are being cheated out of a true education.

"It is not a matter of enforcement. There's a problem and Congress recognizes it."

Horowitz disputes that bills died in Florida, Georgia or any other state. He says they are still being considered, though many state legislatures wrapped up business for the year.

"We've achieved an enormous amount," he said. "We've put it on the national scene. I'm going to be patient. I will be back."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Staff writer Anita Kumar can be reached at kumar@sptimes.com or 202 463-0576.

Read SAF response.