Bill Seeks Equal Treatment for Conservative Students · 30 March 2005

Filed under: Maine, Press Coverage

By Ruth-Ellen Cohen-- Bangor Daily News--03/31/05

AUGUSTA - Several University of Maine System students told lawmakers Wednesday they have been treated unfairly on their campuses because they are politically conservative. All members of the College Republicans, the students testified before the Legislature's Education Committee in favor of LD 1194, which 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 bill, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Bowen, R-Rockport, also stipulates that instructors must refrain from introducing "controversial matter" that has nothing to do with their subject of study. It assures faculty members they would be hired, fired, promoted and-or granted tenure solely because of their competence and not on the basis of political or religious beliefs. And it requires higher education institutions to adopt a grievance process to address complaints of violations.

Students said their conservative ideology has on occasion made campus life difficult. They said, among other things, that they had a tough time getting money from student government to pay for conservative speakers and that signs urging people to join their group would be repeatedly torn down.

Shane Sickles from the University College of Bangor said while he respects the political views of the liberal students and faculty members on campus, "it seems as though the feeling is not reciprocated."

Allison Geagan of the University of Maine said one professor - whom she didn't identify - spoke in class against President Bush for 20 minutes, but wouldn't allow her to offer an opposing view. Mia Dow, also from UM, said she was afraid of revealing her Republican status to professors for fear they would give her a grade "based on my political party and not on my work ethic."

"I have been taunted, sworn at and humiliated beyond the realm of imagination and I am sick of this treatment," she said.

While supporters believe the bill is necessary to protect students and faculty from political bias and to support intellectual diversity, or pluralism, opponents said the bill is needless because university policies already address the rights of students. It would "severely curtail" faculty members' academic freedom, said Allen Burger, provost at the University of Maine at Farmington, speaking for University of Maine System Chancellor Joseph Westphal.

The bill "interferes with current standards for retention and tenure," said Rob Walker, president of the Maine Education Association, the state teachers' union.

Some legislators said it would be difficult to define "controversial matter." Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, a Vassalboro Democrat and co-chair of the Education Committee, wondered whether the proposal wouldn't be interfering with public higher education.

"I've been accused of meddling in the affairs of the university system," she said. "But you're talking about putting it in statute."

Speaking for the bill, University of Maine at Machias Professor Jon Reisman told legislators that he hoped the University of Maine System would address the problem. He said after the meeting that Vice Chancellor Elsa Nunez had told him she is "comfortable with the idea of intellectual pluralism."

A work session on the bill has not yet been scheduled.