Politicized Academia?

A professor unsuccessfully lobbies for a class in political correctness

After an opinion survey found that many Bowling Green State University (BGSU) students felt classes were highly politicized by faculty members on the far left, a sociology professor, Richard Zeller, decided to launch a course that would examine the phenomenon.

His proposed course title is "Political Correctness." Authors on his book list include such prominent neoconservatives as Dinesh D'Souza ("Illiberal Education"), Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray ("The Bell Curve"), and Christina Hoff Summers ("Who Stole Feminism").

The professor was turned down flat - first by his own sociology department, then by the American studies, ethnic studies, and psychology departments.

No matter that Mr. Zeller doesn't happen to agree with everything these authors propose - or, more important, that he is committed to teaching about political correctness in an even-handed way - his colleagues would have none of it.

When Zeller took the controversy beyond the ivory tower to the local Ohio press, some on campus did not appreciate his whistle-blowing efforts. Others, however, wondered what the fuss was all about. The Zeller affair arrives in an era when it seems no sociology course would ever be turned down. In another department, BGSU once offered a course in the roller-coaster - complete with field trips. But Zeller's antagonists argue that his proposed course has no sociological content, and that he intends to use it as a forum to express his right-wing political philosophy.

Gary Lee, chairman of the university's sociology department, likens Zeller's proposed course to an "infomercial," one that would end up with taxpayers footing the bill for advocacy rather than education. He also says that Zeller would grade students on the basis of how much they agreed with his politics. "This is clearly wrong," Mr. Lee insists, "and it doesn't matter whether the indoctrination comes from the left or the right." However, nothing in Zeller's file - he's taught at Bowling Green since 1976 - justifies such fears: No student or administrator has ever complained about him rigging the political deck in classrooms.

At the heart of the dispute separating Zeller and Lee is how much politicization regularly goes on at BGSU and whether a double standard is now being applied to a professor out to teach what many regard as politically incorrect books. If Zeller's course proposal contained the requisite amount of "sociological content," Lee says, "it would have been approved without problem." But it didn't - even though, in Lee's words, "it could have."

Does Lee mean that more might have been done to ensure that Zeller's reading list contained a fair representation of both sides on the "PC" debate? And if so, why didn't he, as chairperson, elicit the sort of conversations that not only lead to compromise but also to a sociology course both faculty members could be proud of?

As with most academic squabbles, there are plenty of gray areas. For example, it is one thing if Zeller teaches about political correctness and quite another if he teaches students how to be politically incorrect. There also may be legitimate questions about his qualifications to teach about the neurobiology of intelligence testing or about postmodern-feminist theory. But these matters are only mentioned in passing by those out to kill Zeller's course before it makes the catalog.

Again, the specter of double standards arises because Zeller may not be the only BGSU professor whose academic reach, and political passions, muddy the academic water. He is, however, probably the only professor in BGSU's history who has been so systematically stonewalled. Even his offer to teach "Political Correctness" as an overload and without compensation got Zeller nowhere.

As the BGSU incident gets wider public exposure, I suspect other Zellers at other universities who will find themselves raising similar questions about what can or cannot be the stuff of an academically responsible course. Some courses will breeze through the grids while others will languish in that special circle of purgatory reserved for the right wing.

Amid all the self-congratulatory talk about diversity one hears on American campuses, it is not at all clear that intellectual diversity is alive and well. If the result of Zeller's pressing for a course that might expose students to controversial thinkers and books had been an honest debate - rather than an exercise in character assassination - all of us might well have been benefitted. As it stands, however, everyone at BGSU has lost.

* Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of the Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and editor of the National Association of Scholars' 'Academic Quarterly.'

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