InsideHigherEd - July 7, 2005

A Win for 'Academic Bill of Rights'

For all the uproar over legislation inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights, very little
of it has gone anywhere. There have been hearings - some of them noisy - in
many states, but not much more this year.

But on Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a resolution
creating a special committee that is charged with investigating - at public colleges
in the state - how faculty members are hired and promoted, whether students are
fairly evaluated, and whether students have the right to express their views without
fear of being punished for them.

The language in the resolution closely follows that of the Academic Bill of Rights,
which has been pushed nationwide by David Horowitz, a former 60s radical who is
now a conservative activist.

Horowitz, writing in Front Page, one of his publications, called the Pennsylvania
vote "a tremendous victory for academic freedom." He said that opposition from
faculty groups "was fierce, and their defeat is that much more bitter as a result."

The fight over the resolution was indeed intense, taking up many hours of debate
and procedural maneuvers before the resolution was approved, 108-90, largely
along party lines, with Republicans backing the measure and Democrats opposing it.
Faculty unions nationally, while saying that they don't object to fairness, oppose the
Academic Bill of Rights, which they say will force professors to give equal time to
any possible view - including Holocaust denial and creationism - and make faculty
members vulnerable to sanctions any time they say something controversial.

Faculty leaders also dislike the idea of a legislative committee being authorized to
inquire as to why courses were taught in certain ways, why professors were hired,
or why students received certain grades. A letter sent to legislators by members of
the faculty union at Temple University, an affiliate of the American Federation of
Teachers, warned that the special committee could "open the door to the kind of
political presence in higher education that we haven't seen in Pennsylvania for 50

Added the letter: "To be a forum for the exchange of ideas of all kinds, a college or
university must be free from the threat of oversight by those with a particular
cultural or political agenda. This is not to say that a public institution of higher
education should be unaccountable for how it spends precious tax dollars. Far from
it. But it is to say that the intellectual climate on college and university campuses will
be far less open if students and professors feel that their work is being monitored by
those who answer to a particular group or set of constituents."

Rep. Gibson Armstrong, the Republican who sponsored the resolution, said in an
interview Wednesday that professors have nothing to worry about. "Those who are
concerned about this, I think misunderstand what it's all about," he said. "This is not
about squelching their ability to interact with their students. This is not about coming
into a classroom and telling them what to tell their kids."

Armstrong also said that the resolution is not a right-wing campaign against liberal
professors. He said that although he first got interested in the issue when he heard
from a conservative constituent that she had been discriminated against by a liberal
professor, he has since heard from liberal students who have faced bias from
conservative professors. Both situations offend him, he said.

"I could care less what your ideology is," Armstrong said. "My concern is for
diversity of thought, diversity of ideas and that an honest debate take place in an
atmosphere that promotes free thinking and the exploration of ideas, rather than
indoctrination to a pre-established point of view."

A good professor, Armstrong said, "is going to help his student understand various
relevant perspectives and help the student come to his or her own conclusion rather
than try to direct them to a pre-established point of view."

Such statements from lawmakers have left many professors worried that they might
be held accountable if they, for example, tell students that evolution is a fact, and
not merely one of several competing theories. Asked about that issue, Armstrong
said, "I'm not a scientist so I would rather not comment on the merits of the theory
of evolution. I know that there a several different theories and versions. When you
say evolution, that's pretty broad."
- Scott Jaschik