The debate over free speech and campus ideology has Pennsylvania as its latest flashpoint. A resolution passed by the state House of Representatives will form a committee to investigate issues of academic freedom in Pennsylvania’s public universities.
State Rep. Gib Armstrong (R-Lancaster), who introduced the measure, said that he was prompted to do so by complaints from students enrolled in state colleges who said they had been discriminated against because of their political views.
The measure comes amid an ongoing effort by conservative intellectual David Horowitz and his group Students for Academic Freedom to get an "academic bill of rights" passed in state legislatures. This push is a response to the perceived liberalism of college faculty, a trend that surveys show is even more pronounced at top-tier universities like Penn.
A study published in March found that 87 percent of faculty at elite U.S. institutions were liberal.
While the conservative student silenced by a liberal professor has become something of a cliche in the debate, Armstrong said that not all the complaints he heard fit this mold. "This is not about punishing liberals," he said. "This is about free speech."
Armstrong added that the bill — passed by the House last Tuesday by a vote of 111 to 87 — was the product of bipartisan consideration and that he allowed changes proposed by Democrats to be added to it. He also said the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — founded by Penn History professor Alan Kors — was helpful in the process.
Brad Shipp, national field director for Students for Academic Freedom, said that he is very encouraged by the measure and hopes that it is a step toward stopping "what we consider the abuse toward students." He added that the proposed measure shares the goal of the academic bill of rights, namely halting classroom discrimination.
Armstrong, however, has been quick to make space between the bill he introduced and the academic bill of rights. He noted that the latter would be create laws regarding academic freedom, while the measure passed in the House will only result in the gathering of information.
Armstrong added that the committee’s report will not necessarily result in legislation and said, "I don’t see the legislature supporting … legislation that governs private universities" like Penn.
Ruth Flower, national director of government relations for the American Association of University Professors — which has opposed the academic bill of rights and similar measures — said that "we’re disappointed that [Pennsylvania lawmakers] thought there was even an issue there."
Flower added that "the people of the state are going to end up paying" for the inquiry mandated by the measure.
While she is not convinced that a discrepancy exists between liberal and conservative university faculty, Flower said that such a disparity would not justify a law, saying, "Imagine a country where the government gets to decide" subject matter in schools.
She added that most universities have procedures set up to address issues of academic freedom and that groups such as Students for Academic Freedom have bypassed them.
Shipp said it is "sad" that the AAUP "[does] not believe in academic freedom for students" and that its position represents "a sad state of affairs for professors in our country."
He added that while "the vast majority of professors do an excellent job," some "flunk, degrade and embarrass" students due to their political beliefs.
School of Arts and Sciences Dean Rebecca Bushnell said that she does not foresee consequences for private universities from this measure but that "Penn has a strong culture of academic freedom."
She added, "Every faculty member [has] a right to his or her own political opinion" and that expression of that opinion in the classroom has been done responsibly at the University.