May 13, 2002
University of South Carolina Mandates Political Indoctrination and Orthodoxy
COLUMBIA, SC—The University of South Carolina (USC), in a required course for a degree-granting program, has adopted “Guidelines for Classroom Discussion” that demand adherence to a narrow set of partisan political assumptions—on pain of being graded poorly for honest disagreement. Although USC is a public institution, bound by the First Amendment, it has created an ideological “loyalty oath” that constitutes a profound threat to both freedom of speech and freedom of conscience in South Carolina and across the country.
The course—”Women’s Studies 797: Seminar in Women’s Studies”—is listed on the program’s website as “required” for a certificate of graduate study in Women’s Studies. On the first day of class, January 16, 2002, Professor Lynn Weber, director of the Women’s Studies Program, distributed a syllabus specifying that classroom participation counts for twenty percent of a student’s overall grade. Professor Weber also distributed “Guidelines for Classroom Discussion,” which command that, in order to participate in class, students “acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist.” Students must 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.”
In a letter of April 25, 2002 to USC President John M. Palms, FIRE pointed to the stark contradiction between the goals of a liberal arts institution and the forced imposition of political beliefs: “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.”
“Through these official ‘Guidelines,’ USC demands that students embrace and remain loyal to Professor Weber’s own viewpoints and beliefs,” said Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE. “In a USC classroom, in a required course, no less, students must hold a preordained set of opinions, regardless of whether or not they agree, under the stated, explicit, and coercive threat of being graded poorly for honest intellectual dissent. Students and professors should be at liberty to hold and espouse any viewpoints they wish. Faculty members at a public institution cross the line from liberty to unlawful coercion when they force students to give allegiance to particular viewpoints.”
As FIRE wrote to President Palms: “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.”
FIRE also reminded President Palms of USC’s own policies (and the principles of the American Association of University Professors, on which those policies are based). Such policies and principles are meant to guarantee students’ freedoms of speech and conscience. USC’s imposition of orthodoxy through course and degree requirements unambiguously violates these protections. In its statement on Students’ Rights and Freedoms within the Academic Community, USC defends the right to dissent and prohibits partisan evaluation:
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.
FIRE’s letter to President Palms also underscored USC’s legal obligation to abide by the First Amendment and to protect its students from political indoctrination. FIRE reminded him of the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), a case, decided in the darkest days of World War II, that remains the law of the land. 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.”
Alan Charles Kors said: “In demanding that students express their adherence to viewpoints with which they might not agree, these ‘Guidelines’ constitute the establishment of an official orthodoxy—precisely the sort of orthodoxy prohibited by Barnette and by the principles of academic freedom. Such tactics should be abhorrent to any institution devoted to learning. USC has replaced the process of intellectual discovery with the imposition of a dogmatic political creed. President Palms must act immediately to redress this outrage and to restore freedom of speech and freedom of conscience at his institution.”
President Palms has yet to respond to FIRE’s inquiry.
FIRE is concerned that this ideological litmus test for credit and degree at USC may be just the tip of the iceberg. Professor Weber developed and published these “Guidelines” in Women’s Studies Quarterly (Spring/Summer 1990). They now have reappeared in “Empowering Students Through Classroom Discussion Guidelines,” part of Teaching Sociological Concepts and the Sociology of Gender (Washington, DC, 2000), a publication of the Teaching Resources Center of the American Sociological Association. FIRE urges students, parents, taxpayers, and friends of academic freedom and the Constitution to beware.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of South Carolina and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan Charles Kors, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
John M. Palms, President, University of South Carolina: 803-777-2001; firstname.lastname@example.org
Lynn Weber, Professor, University of South Carolina: 803-777-4007; email@example.com