After The Academic Bill Of Rights

January 2007

In September 2003, I began a national campaign to persuade universities to adopt an academic bill of rights, aimed at extending traditional academic-freedom protections to students and restoring objectivity and fairness to classrooms. Mounting such an effort is not easy. Getting the issue of campaign finance reform on the national radar, for example, reportedly required some $120-million and the work of several major public-interest organizations. My campaign consisted of two staff members and myself, and a budget to match.

Yet three years later, the issues that I raised the lack of intellectual diversity on campuses and the intrusion of political agendas into the curriculum have become topics of discussion at colleges throughout the country. This July, moreover, Temple University became the first institution to adopt a student bill of rights as a response to my challenge.

How did this happen? Oddly enough, no small part of my success can be attributed to my opponents' tactics.

The American Historical Association and other organizations passed resolutions condemning my bill as an attempt to impose political controls over academic hiring and the curriculum. Representatives and members of the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers denied any problem existed and described my campaign as "Orwellian," a "grave threat to the fundamental principles of academic freedom" and "worse than McCarthy." Joan Wallach Scott, former chairwoman of the AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, compared my proposals to the educational policies of Communist Russia, fascist Japan, and the Third Reich. Although unintended, the extravagance of such claims ensured that my campaign would get national attention.

Suppose my opponents had focused the argument instead on modifying points in my bill to suit the distinct needs of academic institutions. If universities had stepped forward to accept those modified reforms, what legislator would have been willing to propose redundant legislation? Who would have cared about my campaign?

The second problem that my opponents created for themselves lay in the extreme nature of their claims. My assertion, hardly mine alone, that the university environment is heavily skewed to the political left should have been uncontroversial. If it had been received as such by my opponents, the discussion would then have focused on whether the disparity mattered, and what, if anything, should be done.

Instead, my opponents forced me to prove the obvious. My study which I admitted was a crude survey of the party registration of faculty members at 32 elite universities was challenged. The challenge inspired more studies, this time conducted by social scientists like Daniel B. Klein, associate professor of economics at Santa Clara University, that were methodologically sophisticated and took in much larger samples. The result? We now have an empirically sound picture of just how one-sided university faculties have become.

My opponents' third problem has been the absurdity of their charges. I have never called for the firing of liberal professors; I am not seeking political control over personnel decisions or the curriculum; I am not concerned about protecting students from exposure to the liberal biases of professors; and I have not invented faculty abuses of students so as to make a nonexistent case. (There is a difference, need I point out, between repeating a student's claim, which when challenged could not be substantiated, as happened in one incident in Pennsylvania, and attempting to deliberately deceive people that such problems exist.)

In short, my critics' attacks, instead of killing my campaign, have lent it credibility at least among those serious enough to weigh the facts and arguments for themselves.

My opponents have also consistently aimed their intellectual arrows at the wrong targets, allowing me to proceed with my agenda without any substantive opposition. In a September 17 article in The New York Times, for example, Michael Brub, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, expressed concern about a legislative committee that I inspired, the Pennsylvania Committee on Academic Freedom, which held hearings in the state. He noted that during the hearings Penn State "revealed that it had received all of 13 student complaints about political 'bias' over the past five years on a campus with a student population of 40,000."

My response to that point? If there are just 13 abuses per campus at the top 100 universities, that would add up to 1,300 over five years. A study by the historian Lionel Lewis of academic persecutions during the McCarthy era (which, according to Lewis, lasted nine years) found only 126 faculty members involved in academic-freedom cases at 58 institutions nationally. Those cases led to an estimated 69 terminations, of which 31 were resignations at a single institution after it established a loyalty oath. Yet small as that number may appear among the thousands of universities and hundreds of thousands of professors, the author concluded, "It is apparent that their chilling effect on the expression of all ideas by both faculty and students was significant, although in fact there is no way to measure adequately their full impact."

I think most people would concur: The chilling effect is the issue, not the absolute number, although each case is cause for concern. The real question is whether universities are set up to deal with such problems through established and well-publicized procedures. Brub did not discuss whether a policy and a grievance system to handle such abuses exists at universities such as Penn State. In point of fact, Penn State has an admirable academic-freedom policy, but it can be found only in the Human Resources Policy Manual, which pertains to employees. The 40,000 Penn State students at University Park are probably not only unaware of the manual's existence, but if they were to consult it, they would find that the policy does not apply to them.

So while Brub and his colleagues have been covering for administrators who do not want to deal with such problems, I and the Pennsylvania committee have focused on the lack of university policies to protect students from abuses. From that point of view, the result of the hearings was an unqualified victory for the academic-freedom campaign. In the aftermath, Temple adopted its new policy, "Student and Faculty Academic Rights and Responsibilities". That provided the missing protections for students, along with a grievance process specific to academic-freedom violations something no other university that I know has. It also established a reporting system that goes directly to the administration, precluding faculty members from closing ranks at the expense of student petitioners.

National awareness of the academic-freedom issue and the adoption by one university of a worthy student bill of rights bring to a close the first phase of my campaign. I have achieved what I set out to accomplish. The legislative measures that I proposed were a means of urging universities to do the right thing and were never intended to impose standards on them. The purpose of the measures was to put the issue of student rights on the public agenda, and they did just that.

The second phase of my campaign will be a national effort to persuade other universities to follow Temple's example and adopt academic-freedom policies that protect students as well as faculty members. Putting in place a reasonable code of behavior, along with an adequate grievance process to handle complaints, will strengthen universities in these fractious times. If universities are seen to be encouraging intellectual diversity and protecting political and cultural minority groups from attack, they will receive public support. That is in the interest of everyone, liberal people as well as conservative ones, faculty members as well as students.

My new campaign will also focus on the collapse of academic standards in fields where political agendas instead of scholarly values have come to shape curricula. I do not claim to be infallible in conducting research about the issue, but I caution my critics against repeating previous mistakes. Politically corrupted academic standards are an issue, and everybody knows it. How else, for example, could Ward Churchill be elevated to a position of prominence as a full professor and chairman of the ethnic-studies department at a major research university like the University of Colorado at Boulder?

This is no small problem. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a lecturer whose expertise is African languages and literature is teaching conspiracy theories in an introductory course on Islam about September 11, when a scientific understanding of what happened that day must rely on expertise in metals and fuels. Public outcry in Wisconsin over the appointment, which administrators are defending on the grounds of free speech, has already damaged the university. What about professional speech? What about the scholarly expertise that is supposed to underlie academic privilege and tenure? If the university does not support its own professional standards, the public's elected representatives will set standards for it. Such legislative interventions are undesirable but will be an inevitable result of persistent university irresponsibility in those matters.

I therefore invite the AAUP and others to join me in forestalling such steps by pressing universities to enforce professional standards on rogue elements in their faculties. Instead of claiming that no abuses exist, they should try to help remedy them. They should focus any criticisms of me on how I describe particular abuses and the solutions that I propose to correct them. If that should happen, a lot of wind would be taken out of my sails. But then a lot of good would be accomplished, and for me that would be satisfaction enough.