Litmus Tests at Teachers College: Changes to Come?

By May 17, 2007

Earlier this month, FIRE wrote Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman to remind her that FIRE hasn’t forgotten about her school’s use of ideological litmus tests to evaluate students. Torch readers will remember that Teachers College employs a set of “dispositions” to grade student performance. One of these dispositions—“Respect for Diversity and Commitment to Social Justice”—requires students to demonstrate their commitment to “social justice” in order to successfully complete their course of study at Teachers College. Because evaluating a student based on their demonstrated commitment to “social justice” necessarily requires an institutional definition of what is and is not socially just, Teachers College effectively requires students to submit to the school’s conception of social justice, even if it differs dramatically from their own.

As we wrote in our May 9 letter:

A monolithic, top-down definition of a concept as endlessly subjective as “social justice” can only serve to alienate or punish students simply because they do not share the institutional definition by which their own views are judged. You must recognize that not all students will agree that “change agency” is a “moral imperative.” Because of the necessary—and desirable—variation in personal philosophies from student to student, Teachers College’s reliance on a commitment to social justice as an element of evaluation is deeply problematic.

To her credit, President Fuhrman responded quickly, writing us back two days later on May 11. In her reply, President Fuhrman insists that “there is no ideological litmus test at our institution—that the scholarly and pedagogical behaviors we encourage in no way amount to thought control or any other form of coercion.” But while we’ve heard that from her before, this time President Fuhrman appears to be open to the possibility of revising Teachers College’s materials to reflect what she insists is already the case—i.e., that Teachers College does not mandate that students adopt the institution’s understanding of “social justice.” Specifically, President Fuhrman writes:

It has been a busy year, and while we have focused on our practices, we have not yet devoted time to the language that describes them. We plan on tying that up in the near future.

If President Fuhrman is serious about “tying up” Teachers College’s reliance on vague, politically loaded evaluative criteria, she could solve the problem very quickly. As we’ve maintained all along, the solution is simple:

FIRE asks only that a personal “commitment to social justice” or any other vague or politically loaded term no longer be required of Teachers College students, not that the school as a whole abandon its attachment to a certain model of “social justice.”

We hope President Fuhrman is sincere about ensuring Teachers College’s written policies allow students to learn how to be excellent teachers without having to check their own understandings of social justice at the classroom door. We’ll keep you posted.

Schools: Columbia University Cases: Columbia University: Ideological Litmus Tests at Teachers College