FIRE’s Letter to USC President John M. Palms

By April 25, 2002

April 25, 2002

John M. Palms, President

University of South Carolina

206 Osborne Administration Building

Columbia, SC 29208

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (803-777-1220)

Dear President Palms,

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders
in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars,
journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and
ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic
freedom, due process, freedom of speech, and conscience on America’s
college campuses. Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a
greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is profoundly concerned by the threat to freedom of both speech
and conscience posed by the official “Guidelines for Classroom
Discussion” for a seminar taught by Professor Lynn Weber, chair of the
Women’s Studies Program at the University of South Carolina. These
“Guidelines” compel students to express viewpoints they might not
believe and to make fundamental assumptions with which they might not
agree, under the stated, explicit, and coercive threat of being graded
poorly for honest intellectual dissent. Such an ideological “loyalty
oath” should be anathema to any institution devoted to learning,
because it replaces the process of intellectual discovery with the
imposition of dogmatic political orthodoxy. Because this class is
explicitly a “required seminar,” its ideological requirements violate
not only the guidelines on academic freedom of the American Association
of University Professors (AAUP) and USC’s own regulations, but also,
indeed, the Constitution of the United States.

The web page of the Women’s Studies Program states that “Women’s Studies 797: Seminar in Women’s Studies” is “required”
for a certificate of graduate study in Women’s Studies. On the first
day of class, January 16, 2002, Professor Weber distributed the course
syllabus, which states that classroom participation counts for twenty
percent of a student’s overall grade. Professor Weber also distributed
on that same day a document entitled “Guidelines for Classroom
Discussion,” a copy of which is enclosed with this letter. The
Guidelines mandate that students “acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist,” and assume “that people—both the people we study and the members of the class-always do the best they can.” The Guidelines also stipulate that “we are all systematically taught misinformation about our own group and about members of other groups,” that “this is true for members of privileged and oppressed groups,” and that students must “agree to combat actively the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups.”

While it is, of course, permissible for a professor to hold the
political views espoused in the Guidelines, or even to advocate these
arguments in teaching and scholarship, it is categorically different to
require students to hold certain arguments as unquestionable truths in
order to participate in a class without penalty (let alone in a
required class). Indeed, it is unconscionable that a student’s grade
would be predicated on his or her participation in a class discussion
that demands fealty to those arguments. In this required class, any
dissenting students would be put in the intolerable position of having
to profess beliefs they do not share or receive—by virtue of honest
intellectual dissent—a lower grade. Professor Weber’s Guidelines
constitute a political litmus test. They require that students adopt
her ideological assumptions in order to acquire a certificate of
graduate study in this subject.

A public university, or, indeed, any university that honors academic
freedom, may not stipulate a commitment to any ideology as a condition
of participation in the classroom-let alone tell students what their
beliefs must be in order to attain a degree in a given field. This is
true no matter what the ideology in question. FIRE would oppose with
equal fervor classroom guidelines that demanded commitment to
Christianity or to atheism for a degree in theology; to the free market
or to socialism for a degree in economics; to internationalism or to
patriotism for a degree in political science. Classroom guidelines that
mandate values and commitment to schools of thought create a loyalty
oath that is injurious to intellectual freedom. A university in which
students are not allowed to disagree with their professors on
fundamental assumptions about reality is incapable of intellectual
innovation, critical dialogue, meaningful discourse, or true
scholarship. The sad legacy of mandatory allegiances to political
ideologies darkened the academy during the heyday of McCarthyism. Let
us not revive that legacy.

Mandating political beliefs is in stark opposition to the principles and statements of the AAUP. In its Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students
(1967), the AAUP addressed the principle of academic freedom as it
relates to students: “students should be encouraged to develop the
capacity for critical judgment and to engage in a sustained and
independent search for truth…[they] should be free to take
reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study
and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion.”
The Joint Statement also noted that “students should have protection through orderly procedures against prejudiced or capricious academic evaluation.” In 2000, the AAUP reaffirmed the necessity of these fundamental rights in its Statement on Graduate Students:
“Graduate programs in universities exist for the discovery and
transmission of knowledge, the education of students, the training of
future faculty, and the general well-being of society. Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment of these goals.” Professor Weber’s Guidelines clearly betray each of these statements on rights and freedoms.

Professor Weber’s Guidelines also violate USC’s own statement on
Students Rights and Freedoms within the Academic Community. USC’s
statement replicates the AAUP’s language quoted above: “The
professor in the classroom and in conference should encourage free
discussion, inquiry, and expression. Student performances should be
evaluated solely on an academic basis, not [on the basis of] opinions
or conduct in matters unrelated to academic standards….Students
should be free to take reasoned exceptions to the data or views offered
in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of
opinion…Students should have protection through orderly procedures
against prejudiced or capricious academic evaluation.”

Rather than supporting the AAUP’s noble principles or USC’s contract
with its students, Professor Weber’s Guidelines forbid students from
developing “critical judgment” and frustrate their “independent search
for truth.” Indeed, she promises to punish them for doing so. Her
Guidelines do not allow students to take “reasoned exception” or to
“reserve judgment”; rather, they require students to adopt her ideology
wholesale and without dissent. Because students in this seminar are
graded on how they participate in classroom discussions, they are not
even afforded basic protection against “prejudiced or capricious
academic evaluation”—indeed, with the establishment of these
Guidelines, Professor Weber pledges herself to an academic evaluation
that is both strongly prejudiced and capricious.

Most importantly, mandated allegiances to political ideologies
at public universities violate the United States Constitution. One
great and beautiful truth lies at the heart of the cases that outlaw
such political litmus tests and state-required “values”: the state may
not and should not be the sole arbiter of truth. The Supreme Court
recognized this principle in its opinion in West Virginia Board of
Education v. Barnette (1943), a case decided in the darkest days of
World War II. Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the Court,
declared, “Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not
matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its
substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of
the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our
constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty,
can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism,
religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by
word or act their faith therein
[emphasis added].”

We are categorically committed to using all of our media and legal
resources to oppose this ideological litmus test and to see this
process to a just and moral conclusion. Now that you are aware of the
situation, we trust that you will meet your moral and legal obligations
to restore freedom of speech and freedom of conscience at your
institution. Please spare USC the embarrassment of fighting against the
Bill of Rights, by which it is legally and morally bound. We urge you
to correct this injustice, showing the world that, at your university,
free speech and freedom of conscience are considered essential to the
search for truth.

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Alan Charles Kors

President

cc:

Joan H. Stewart, Dean, College of Liberal Arts

Lynn Weber, Chair, Women’s Studies Program

Governor James H. Hodges, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Mack I. Whittle, Jr., Chairman, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Herbert C. Adams, Vice Chairman, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Arthur S. Bahnmuller, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

James Bradley, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Alex English, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

A.C. Fennell, III, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

C. Edward Floyd, M.D., University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Samuel R. Foster, II, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Helen C. Harvey, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

William C. Hubbard, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Toney J. Lister, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Miles Loadholt, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Robert N. McLellan, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

J. DuPre Miller, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Darla D. Moore, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Michael J. Mungo, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

M. Wayne Staton, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Inez M. Tenenbaum, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

John C. von Lehe Jr., University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Othniel H. Wienges, Jr., University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Thomas L. Stepp, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees

Schools: University of South Carolina Columbia