Bill Targets Political Bias · 23 March 2005

Filed under: Maine, Press Coverage

By Ruth-Ellen Cohen--Bangor Daily News--03/24/05

BANGOR - Aiming to protect students and faculty from political bias, a Rockport lawmaker has introduced legislation to ensure that the campus climate at Maine's public universities is conducive to a diversity of ideas and beliefs. Sponsored by Rep. Stephen Bowen, LD 1194 would require state colleges and universities to publish an "academic bill of rights" to keep students and instructors from being penalized for expressing unpopular viewpoints both in and out of the classroom.

The proposed bill also requires the institutions to adopt a grievance process to address complaints of violations.

"Universities cultivate diversity in race, skin color, ethnicity, sexual preference - all of those things," Bowen, a Republican, said recently. "But it would appear - if nationwide polls are any indication - that they're becoming less and less diverse ideologically. That's potentially troubling."

The academic bill of rights would state, among other things, that students should expect:

. Access to a broad range of scholarly opinions.

. Grading based solely on "reasoned answers," and no discrimination because of political or religious beliefs.

. Fees - given to student government to pay for speakers - distributed "on a viewpoint-neutral basis" so those with varying political and religious perspectives can be heard.

For their part, faculty members would be assured through the bill of rights that they would be hired, fired, promoted and-or granted tenure solely because of their competence and appropriate knowledge in their field, and not on the basis of political or religious beliefs.

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, in Room 202 in the State Office Building.

Other states - including California, Indiana, Florida, Ohio and Tennessee - have introduced various versions of an academic bill of rights.

Bowen said he was spurred to promote the bill after learning about an incident at Bates College in Lewiston where college Republicans were called a "gang of thugs."

After researching the issue, he found that, according to national statistics, liberal college professors outnumber conservatives by at least seven to one in the humanities and social sciences. "Some academics say to move up the ranks it helps to share the political opinion of people above you. Since conservatives are outnumbered, some feel there's not the same opportunity for promotion," he said.

University of Maine Dean of Students Robert Dana likes the bill. It "supports the whole idea of colleges and universities being a marketplace of ideas. It encourages open discourse and ... assures that no one on either side of the equation will take any of this for granted," he said.

Expressions of alternative opinions often are squelched because of "group think," he added. "Even in places where it shouldn't occur, conformity is expected."

Bowen said he hopes his proposal will "at least foster a good discussion of what the climate is like on college campuses in the state."

"Either we'll discover it's not an issue, or if it is, we'll know we have a problem."

Some people contend a problem already exists. "Students often aren't given the other side of the story," said Dan Shuberth, a student at Bowdoin College and state chairman of the Maine College Republicans. "They're not given the critical-thinking tools to make an educated decision that college students should be expected to make."

University of Maine System students have told him they have received lower grades on papers in which they expressed a conservative viewpoint, said Shuberth.

"It's more difficult being a conservative on campus," said John Mitchell, chairman of the College Republicans at the University of Maine. Students with a conservative bent have told him they feel intimidated about speaking up in the classroom, he said.

"Republicans and conservatives are in the closet mostly," said Jon Reisman, a professor at the University of Maine at Machias, who noted that he is the only member of the faculty with a Bush-Cheney sticker on his car.

"We have to speak up more, but the culture is pretty negative," he said, recalling that when Hilary Clinton visited the University of Maine as first lady, "it was almost a coronation," in contrast to Laura Bush's visit, which elicited "a pretty cool reception."

"The bill would help restore intellectual pluralism" on college campuses, Reisman said. "You've got to have intellectual pluralism - otherwise it's indoctrination, not education."