Shaking the Core of Academic Speech

By July 17, 2005

Conservatives and the largely liberal academic establishment don’t agree on much, but members of both sides say an academic-freedom crisis threatens Pennsylvania’s campuses this summer, as the state becomes a flash point in a growing national debate over the role of politics at universities.

At the center of the scrum is a new state legislative committee that will begin a first-of-its-kind investigation of intellectual diversity and free speech at public higher education institutions after the school year begins.

Lawmakers said the House committee would hear from students who think that their academic rights have been infringed upon and give faculty and administrators a chance to respond.

Campus conservatives see the hearings as redress for what they feel is a stiflingly leftist atmosphere of college classrooms, where intellectual dissent can earn a Republican ridicule or an unduly poor grade.

Many professors, however, consider the probe to be a far greater threat to academic freedom, likening it to 1950s loyalty oaths and McCarthyism.

"The committee brings up a real issue, but it exaggerates the extent of the problem," said Perry A. Zirkel, a Lehigh University professor who studies academic-freedom issues. Campus conservatives may have legitimate complaints, he said, but the investigation had potential to "chill" academic expression.

"They won’t come to me and say, ‘Thou shalt not talk about President Bush,’ but just having a committee will certainly make people think twice before they speak," he said. "The whole point of academic freedom is people are free to speak without considering political consequences."

Rep. Gib Armstrong (R., Lancaster) said he sponsored the resolution after hearing complaints from "several dozen" students throughout the state. "A biology professor that spends his time teaching biology has nothing to worry about. If he spends his time ranting about whatever candidate or agenda he happens to be opposed to, then this might be a little embarrassing for him."

Armstrong said he did not expect a legal fix would be required. But if one is needed, the "Academic Bill of Rights" – written by prominent conservative David Horowitz – might be "an option."

The Horowitz bill of rights, which is written in nonpartisan language, has been discussed in at least 12 other state legislatures (New Jersey’s is not among them), but only Pennsylvania has created a select committee to investigate academic freedom.

In many respects, the bill of rights articulates basic and widely accepted academic freedom principles: Faculty should encourage free discussion and debate; they should not bring irrelevant political opinions into the classroom; a diversity of views should be taught, and students should be graded on their knowledge of a subject, not on their ideology.

Old academic freedom code

Those ideas have long been included in the academic freedom code of the American Association of University Professors, and many schools have similar policies in place.

What distinguishes Horowitz’s text from professional codes is its proposed enshrinement in law. Most scholars consider political oversight anathema to academic freedom, feeling instead that they should police themselves.

Last week, most of the nation’s leading higher education associations issued a joint statement reasserting their commitment to intellectual diversity and academic freedom. But they also noted that "government’s recognition and respect for the independence of colleges and universities is essential for academic and intellectual excellence."

Not all university leaders consider this sort of government oversight inappropriate.

"If you’re a public institution, elected officials have a right to inquire about the conduct of your business," said Temple University president David Adamany. Any hearings, he said, are likely only to demonstrate that "the vast majority of faculty are scrupulously careful not to bring extraneous political views into their classrooms."

However, most administrators and professors share the opinion of Pennsylvania State University president Graham Spanier, who said, "It’s risky getting into legislative solutions to issues of academic propriety.

Can academe police itself?

"If there are issues we will, of course, deal with them," he said, "but we know how to do that in academe."

That’s where Horowitz and other critics disagree most sharply. They are emphatic that the academy has not lived up to its own academic freedom principles or enforced its policies.

"If they implement their own policies, I’ll go away, and so will all this legislation," he said.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a leading academic-freedom group based in Philadelphia, has not taken an official position on the investigation or Horowitz’s bill of rights. But executive director David French says he thinks the hearings could work if they focus on campus "speech codes," which usually restrict students from using language that certain groups or individuals find offensive or abusive. The group considers such codes unconstitutional.

"I’d like to see the academic establishment muster even one-tenth the outrage they muster against the bill of rights directed against speech codes that already exist," French said.

Faculty and administrators say there’s little outrage because students’ academic rights are rarely violated. French, though, thinks a better explanation is the "high degree of ideological conformity" on campus.

A 2001 nationwide survey of faculty by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that 54 percent of professors at public universities considered themselves "liberal" or "far left," while 14 percent considered their views to be "conservative" or "far right." Thirty-one percent described their politics as "middle-of-the-road."

Conservative students say that tilt is all too evident.

"I can tell pretty quickly if a professor is going to be open-minded and I can be honest, or if I have to pretend I love the environment and the spotted owl is my best friend," said Vicky Cangelosi, a 20-year-old Penn State student who won student government endorsement of the Horowitz bill of rights.

Although professors and administrators acknowledge that some violations occur, most consider claims of widespread propagandizing to be widely overblown.

"This is not a case where we should be killing an ant with a sledgehammer," said Spanier. Penn State has about 7,000 full- and part-time faculty members, and "you can count on your fingers the complaints."

Horowitz concedes that the "majority of faculty by a goodly margin are decent."

"But I think there is a significant minority that are just abusing their positions," he said. "Let the committee find out."