A bill to protect campus conservatives?
A professor requires that students write - and send - antiwar letters to President Bush to receive full class credit.Skip to next paragraph
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A graduate student instructor warns, in the description for his course on Palestinian resistance, that "conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections."
A criminology professor assigns a paper on "Why George Bush Is a War Criminal," and fails a paper submitted instead on "Why Saddam Hussein Is a War Criminal."
These are just a sampling of recent anecdotes that critics cite when they want to show that campus politics not only tilt to the left, but sometimes do so to the exclusion of all other opinions. Conservatives, they warn, may have become the most discriminated-against minority in academia.
Now, they're offering a solution: an "academic bill of rights," penned by conservative activist David Horowitz, one version of which has already been introduced to the US House of Representatives. Another may come soon before the Colorado legislature.
It's a bill that critics say would destroy academic freedom - even as proponents insist it is needed to salvage it.
And it has also raised some old questions about just how tolerant campuses are - a question both sides admit needs to be taken seriously.
"All the evidence is anecdotal," says Philip Klinkner, a professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., about the charge that conservatives sometimes feel unwelcome on campuses. "But on the other hand, there's a lot of it, and therefore should be a cause of concern."
Professor Klinkner, a liberal himself, says he sees some value to the bill of rights, and he wonders whether the knee-jerk reaction against it hasn't in some ways reinforced the point Mr. Horowitz was making.
The subject of all the furor is relatively toothless - a bill that is more an expression of principles than any real threat to intrude on hiring or curriculum matters.
Its eight points include the idea that faculty should not be hired, fired, or granted tenure on the basis of political or religious beliefs; that students should never be graded on such beliefs; that faculty shouldn't use the classroom for indoctrination; and that courses should offer a range of viewpoints.
"You'd think this would be second nature for anyone who calls themselves an educator," says Horowitz.
So why the fuss?
The idea of lawmakers moving in to professors' domain has drawn the most outrage, from groups like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
"There's a sad history of legislators expressing views on what should and should not be taught," says Jonathan Knight, a spokesman for the AAUP. "What conservatives and liberals alike should be championing is the independence of universities and faculties to make decisions free of the pressures of external bodies like legislatures."
Stanley Fish, dean of the college of liberal arts at the University of Illinois-Chicago, agrees. For the most part, he supports Horowitz's bill, which was originally intended for universities themselves to adopt rather than for legisatures to pass. The problem, he says, is "the people who've latched on" to the bill.
If lawmakers become involved, Dr. Fish envisions commissions that periodically check to see if "academic diversity," whatever that may be, is being sufficiently maintained, or the creation of political litmus tests connected to public funds for universities.
Mr. Knight of the AAUP also worries that the attention feeds public stereotypes about the left-leaning ivory tower, and distracts from more pressing issues like rising tuition and declining budgets.
But others say the problem is more than simply public perception.
Luann Wright, a San Diego educator, became concerned after her son took a required freshman writing course at the University of California at San Diego.
"The primary agenda of the course," she says, "was one of race, taught from a radical perspective. Four of the five readings were about what one author called 'the ruinous ethnology of whiteness.' "
Her son told her that the instructor held polls on things like racial quotas, and then ganged up on him and one or two other students who disagreed with her.
So Ms. Wright created a website - www.NoIndoctrination.org - that invites students from all over to submit accounts of courses or orientations that seem to cross a line. More than 100 have been posted.
Her goal, she says, is to discourage efforts to push any political agenda onto students, but almost all the complaints she's received are about left-wing politics.
That university faculties are primarily liberal is hardly surprising, or new. One recent study by the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture found that at 32 elite schools, liberals outnumbered conservatives by more than 10 to 1. It's a political skewing that many credit to self-selection rather than the indoctrination people like Horowitz complain of.
But some see such lopsidedness as evidence of bias, and university hiring practices have been one of the most contentious issues raised. Many administrators, like Fish, point out that colleges can't ask about political beliefs when hiring, but critics say they come into play anyway.
"You see on someone's résumé that they had a job in Reagan's office, or at the NAACP, or the ACLU, or their activities included Intervarsity Christian Fellowship," says Thor Halvorssen, executive officer of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that fights first-amendment violations at colleges. "It's tough to hide politics when getting hired. Anyone who says this isn't the case is being willfully deceitful or naive."