National columnist attacks WSU

October 19, 2005

The test for “good character” in the College of Education at Washington State University has drawn national attention in a piece published this week in U.S News and World Report.

To syndicated columnist John Leo, the test is an unconstitutional outrage because it requires students to conform to liberal rhetoric and beliefs.

In keeping with national accreditation standards, the College of Education evaluates whether students pass the good character test required by the state of all teachers. The evaluation form includes an item asking whether a student “exhibits an understanding of the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation and privilege in American society.”

In an interview earlier this fall, the dean of the college, Judy Mitchell, said she didn’t know if conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could pass the “dispositions” evaluation.

“If a (Supreme Court) Justice could conceivably not meet any institution’s criteria for ‘dispositions’ acceptable to the profession, the institution must change,” said Rep. Don Cox, R-Colfax. Cox is a former faculty member at WSU’s College of Education and a retired public school superintendent who serves on education committees in the Legislature.

Although Scalia is only a hypothetical student at the College of Education, Ed Swan, 42, is a flesh-and-blood elementary education major who ran afoul of the test and was threatened with termination from the education program this August.

Swan failed four “Professional Dispositions Evaluation” forms filled out by faculty in the college of education last year and therefore could have been terminated from the program.

Swan, a self-employed landscaper from Othello, Wash., is a conservative Christian who is outspoken in his views about politics, race, social change, religion, and the Constitution. He doesn’t support Affirmative Action, and he doesn’t feel that gays should adopt children.

The test, which is called a “dispositions test” — and the way the faculty have interpreted it — concerns both Cox and Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

“You hear about this kind of thing on the radio, with someone kept out of something at a university because of their conservative views,” Schoesler said. “But here it is happening in our own back yard.”

Cox and Schoesler said they have heard for years of students in both education and the liberal arts at WSU being less than welcome in their programs if they espouse politically conservative views.

“It would be unacceptable for a K-12 teacher to say to a student ‘your paper must support my opinion,’ but that does sometimes seem to be the case with WSU faculty,” Cox said.

Swan’s status as a student is currently not threatened. In August, a national civil liberties group, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, intervened on his behalf. WSU later reversed its threatened expulsion of Swan from the education program.

The PDE forms still are in use within the teacher-training program. However, they are creating alarm among some conservatives about what could happen to Swan or other students who fail at the end of this semester.

The liberal bent of WSU faculty in both education and the liberal arts is well known, and it leads over time to the voicing of more and more extreme views, said WSU history professor Jerry Gough.

“If a group is isolated from contact with others who hold differing views, there is a social science theory that states the group is likely to drift toward the ideas of its more extreme members,” Gough said. “That’s what we see often with liberals within university culture.”

Gough is a political conservative, but his condemnation of the “dispositions” evaluations is shared by some liberals on campus.

“The ‘dispositions’ form is a despicable form of thought control,” said retired education professor and long-time Democratic activist Don Orlich. “What the College of Ed is saying is, they don’t want anyone actually thinking. The college’s approach violates the principal of freedom of speech.”

For his part, Swan is encouraged by the concerns of faculty from across the political spectrum and heartened by the arguments put forward by the U.S. News and World Report columnist.

“When I was 22, I might have just did and said what they wanted me to in the College of Ed. But now, at age 42, my views mean more to me, and so I feel I have to speak up,” Swan said this week. “It would haunt me if I didn’t.

“The good thing is, because of the attention this has received, I can sit in class with a little more confidence now.”

Schools: Washington State University Cases: Washington State University: Use of Dispositions Theory to Enforce Ideological Orthodoxy