Politicians, Professors May Not See Eye to Eye on College Legislation · 06 March 2005

Filed under: Ohio, Press Coverage

Politicians, Professors May Not See Eye to Eye on College Legislation

By Carol Biliczky--Akron Beacon Journal--03/05/05

It's tough enough for Priscilla Sakezles to steer her college students through some of life's most touchy topics -- on God and on the creation of the universe, for instance.

But the University of Akron educator can't believe that state legislators want to stand over her shoulder as she does it.

That could happen under a bill pending in the Ohio Senate.

The Academic Bill of Rights would hold faculty accountable if they drift off into irrelevant rants, choke off alternative points of view or downgrade students because of their opinions.

The goal is to give conservative viewpoints the same emphasis as liberal ones, said the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Larry Mumper, R-Marion.

``I'm hearing that students fear they can't graduate if they stand up to college professors,'' said Mumper, a former high school teacher.``They fear retribution.''

His introduction of the Ohio bill last month brought him attention from all over the country, including Newsweek magazine.

He's working to pass the bill through the Senate Education Committee, the first step in the lengthy review process. This week, two students from Ohio State and Ohio University testified on the faculty excesses they see on campus.

On Tuesday, Mumper will bring social activist and writer David Horowitz to another committee meeting. The Malibu, Calif., resident is head of the right-wing academic freedom crusade to restore conservative viewpoints to campuses across the country.

Eighteen months ago, Horowitz started Students for Academic Freedom, a coalition of college campus chapters. The Washington, D.C., group seeks to promote equity in hiring and firing of college faculty with conservative views, and to persuade colleges, universities and state legislators to adopt codes of conduct for faculty.

Overwhelming response

According to the group's Web site (www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org), response has been overwhelming.

A Georgia congressman has introduced a resolution into the U.S. House of Representatives, while state legislators in Georgia and Colorado approved resolutions favoring intellectual diversity.

Several other states are looking at bills.

SAF campus director Sara Dogan said she's received more than 1,000 complaints from students that contend teaching is one-sided, students get lower grades if they object to a professor's view or instructors lash out on subjects not remotely connected to the class.

``They say Bush is a moron, Cheney is a coward -- hardly scholarly comments,'' Dogan said.

One teen at Miami University complained that his girlfriend was assigned the role of a lesbian with a partner for a Dance, Culture and Context class. An Ohio State student complained about being assigned to read the New York Times.

A student in a 20th century literature class at Ohio State complained he (or she) got a `D-' on a paper because the student had worn a ``W'' T-shirt, souring the teacher.

Those kind of complaints are common at campuses nationwide, said Danielle Winters, a political science student from Dublin, Ohio, who's starting an SAF chapter at Bowling Green State University. The only other SAF chapter in Ohio is at Miami University.

In an article for the BGSU student newspaper, Winters said she had looked forward to college as a ``land of open thought where I would have professors that would encourage the development of my own opinions and morals.''

She said it ``sure was disheartening'' when she saw professors ``perched on a soapbox ranting about something that had absolutely no pertinence to the subject they were supposed to be'' teaching.

Different view

Not surprisingly, many college faculty see it otherwise.

At the University of Akron, sociology professor John Zipp said the bill would have a dangerous effect.

``Who's going to enforce it? How are they going to enforce it?'' he asked. ``Who's going to decide what's a controversial subject? Just bringing up a topic for some students is offensive.''

Mumper's bill would require colleges to adopt a grievance procedure to field complaints but doesn't spell out what is actionable or what the penalties could be.

As head of the sociology department for almost seven years, Zipp said he has fielded a lot of complaints about faculty that didn't pan out.

``I have never had it occur exactly as the student describes it,'' Zipp said. ``As they say in the South, no matter how thin you make a pancake, it still has two sides.''

Cheryl Elman, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Akron, said an educator wouldn't even have to do anything to raise a student's ire.

``How could you prove this? It could be entirely the student's projection,'' said Elman, who regularly raises controversial subjects in her classes on the family and on aging.

``I know of very few faculty who want to close things down,'' she said. ``That's not how you approach learning.''

Sakezles, who teaches courses in logic, ethics and Greek philosophy, said her courses are controversial by their nature -- and no student, legislator or administrator should be riding shotgun on what she or any other educator says in them.

``I have the greatest respect for my colleagues,'' she said. ``I think they should have complete freedom.''

Mumper, the bill's sponsor, cautioned that it can take several years to get a bill through the General Assembly.

And later this month, he said, the education committee temporarily will abandon the academic freedom proposal to tackle the education budget. It will return to the rights bill in June.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com