news commentary
March 14, 2008

 

Academic freedom or an
invitation to a witch hunt?

by Vicki Walker

The use of liberal-sounding legislation such as the Academic Bill of Rights or the Intellectual Diversity Act may be ushering a not-so-subtle neo-McCarthyism into our universities.

In Missouri such legislation is called the Emily Brooker Higher Education Sunshine Act, or HB 1315, named for a Missouri State University student who sued the state university in Springfield, MO in 2006, charging religious and ideological discrimination.

The idea behind the bill is to protect political, ideological and religious points of view in the university classrooms.

Sounds, well, fair. Right? Not so fast.

On Feb. 5, a group of academics, students and free speech organizations testified before the Education Committee on HB 1315, whose author is Rep. Jane Cunningham (R-STL) and who is also the chairman of the committee. Professor Victoria Johnson from the University of Missouri-Columbia was one who testified.

“The goal of the university study is bring evidence and reason into the classroom and teach students to back up their assertions in class,” Johnson said.

Her concerns about the bill are threefold. First, Johnson believes the bill’s name is deceptive.

“By using the word ‘sunshine’ they are intimating that there is something to hide,” Johnson said. “(But) it will undermine the quality of education. It’s like Affirmative Action for the Extreme Right.”

Johnson, who is an associate professor in sociology, said the proposed law gives the impression that all ideas are equal. Not true. Credible scholarship must back up ideas and theories before they get traction in any university setting. “It is credible scholarship versus ideological crank,” said Johnson.

Professors must be peer reviewed in scientific or professional journals. Sometimes, she said, ideas must be changed because new information is learned or old suppositions are disproved. “This is the essence of education,” said Johnson.

“The bill seeks to put all ideas on the same level. And they aren’t. You can’t bring in Ann Coulter for Norm Chomsky.”

Johnson also objects to the bill because she sees this as politicians micromanaging education, something other professions aren’t subjected to. “It is an insult to professional autonomy and integrity,” Johnson said.

Lastly, Johnson sees the continuous attacks on faculty year after year (this is the second year this bill has been introduced in Missouri) as a subtle erosion of the reputation of the state’s university system.

“There are faculty now who are looking for at other universities (to teach), “she said. “The attacks on academic freedom, the erosion of professional integrity and the air of McCarthyism, along with the stark and continuous reductions in funding by the state, all combine to create a toxic mood on campus.”

(According to the Missouri Department of Higher Education, the state’s four-year institutions are currently nearly 7% below 2001 operating budget levels. [www.dhe.mo.gov/files/QuickFacts.pdf])

So are all ideas equal? Should they be?

What happens if Chip believes that the earth is only 6,000 years old, a Christian fundamentalist belief, but hundred of years of scientific data and theory proves him wrong? People can “believe” in something that is not true. Does that “belief” deserve to be given equal treatment with facts? Does the Nazi viewpoint get an equal airing? The “abortion causes breast cancer” viewpoint? The “Bill Clinton is a drug-smuggling murderer” viewpoint?

According to Johnson, this is what could happen if HB 1315 passes. She maintains it is not intellectual diversity the designers of the legislation want so much as a dilution of intellectual research, and discussion using reason and evidence.

To prove her point, Johnson relayed a story that happened when she was at Bates College in New England in the late 1990s. A young assistant professor of political science, Kiran Asher, was teaching about colonialism in India and how it affected the people and politics. The New Left Review edited the text, a fact that was all David Horowitz needed to scream “bias.”

Horowitz, who has appeared on Fox News as an “expert,” was in the 1960s a liberal activist. However, his relationships with his Communist parents, the Black Panthers, his view of the Vietnam War and the bloodbath that ensued after the US pulled out had him making a hard right turn.

Despite Horowitz’s charge of bias, according to a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i23/23a01801.htm), Asher, who is no longer at the college, said the text discussed a variety of viewpoints, including conservative icon Francis Fukuyama, and that she had read similar views in The Economist.

Horowitz founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in 1988 to get a conservative presence in Hollywood and to prove that there was popular culture had become a “political battleground.” In 2006, he changed the organization’s name to the Freedom Center.

In 2003, the center began advocating for an Academic Bill of Rights through a movement called the Campaign for Academic Freedom. At his website (www.horowitzfreedomcenter.org), Horowitz declared the intention is to “restore academic freedom and open inquiry to college campuses.”

The central principle for Horowitz is intellectual diversity.

He began fundraising for his New Schools Project, which will “develop relationships with donors, legislators and university administrations that would restore a liberal arts curriculum and faculty in our universities and the commitment to teaching Western Civilization.”

From 2003-2006, Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights legislation was introduced in more than half the states. All bills were either withdrawn or defeated, according to the American Association of University Professors’ website, www.aaup.org.

In 2008, nine “Intellectual Diversity” bills have been introduced around the country, including the one in Missouri.

Stephen Dilks, director of the Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said HB 1315 is dangerous to academic freedom. An opinion that spurred the faculty to write an Academic Freedom statement, posted at the Faculty Senate website (www.umkc.edu/provost/initiatives/FaCET/index.asp).

Dilks, who teaches British literature beginning in 1798, contends that to get “diversity of viewpoint” in his classes, he can teach from a historical viewpoint or from a prose viewpoint, but if “We are studying Darwin’s writings from the HMS Beagle, I will not teach from a biblical viewpoint because it is not a religion class.”

Dilks added, “If you impose a political definition of religion or even politics, it will have a chilling effect.”

The proposed legislation, which has a companion bill in the Senate (SB983), sets up reporting requirements for “public institutions of higher education.”

The Coordinating Board for Higher Education will require each public institution of higher education to annually report to the General Assembly on steps taken to ensure intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas as described in the act. The report must be distributed to the General Assembly by Dec. 31, 2009. Each public institution of higher education must post its report on its website and ensure that students are notified of measures to promote intellectual diversity and how to report alleged violations.

Education has been in the firing line of conservatives for decades. It began with a frightened Supreme Court Justice.

In 1971, then Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell lamented that liberals would take the country into socialism or worse. He saw the anti-war protests, the civil rights marches, and the rallies for women and gays, along with the increasing backlash against corporations, who were seen as polluters, as direct threats to capitalism.

In a memo known as the Powell Manifesto, Powell sought to raise the awareness of the chambers of commerce, boards of directors and other bastions of the status quo to the dangers posed by these groups. However, he also called attention to the college campuses, from which much criticism of the war, President Nixon and business practices came. The media was another institution Powell criticized.

Powell urged those who were equally afraid of what was happening to put all they had into building up think tanks that would train “their own” reporters, professors and other experts to go out into the world and help people see the value of the free enterprise system. (http://reclaimdemocracy.org/corporate_accountability/powell_memo_lewis.html)

The result was a rise of conservative think tanks as the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Hoover Foundation, Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, organizations that have made great inroads into changing America and affecting public policy.

Opponents of such legislation as the Emily Brooker Higher Education Sunshine Act and similar bills, believe education is the last place students can think for themselves; where they can be challenged and where they have to learn to defend their ideas. It is truly the marketplace of ideas…if the politicians will stay out of the store.

HB 1315 was passed out of committee on Feb. 28.

Vicki Walker, a freelance journalist, also hosts KC Media Watch Dogs on KKFI. She can be contacted at vwatsonwalker@gmail.com.


              
              
                 

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