Washington State Rejects Political Litmus Test for Education Students

PULLMAN, Wash., February 28, 2006—Six months ago, Ed Swan feared that his teaching career would end before it started, merely because his ideology differed from that of his professors at Washington State University (WSU). Today, thanks to a campaign of public exposure by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), WSU has completely repealed the criteria it used to punish Swan.

“WSU has finally done the right thing and abandoned its unconstitutional and unfair ‘dispositions’ requirements,” stated FIRE Interim President Greg Lukianoff. “This is a tremendous victory not just for Ed Swan, but for the freedom of thought and conscience of every WSU education student.”

Last fall, Swan was given poor marks on “dispositions” criteria used by WSU’s College of Education for expressing, after he was asked, his conservative political and religious beliefs. (For example, Swan was penalized for admitting that he opposes gun control and does not believe that white privilege and male privilege exist.) Indeed, before FIRE took the case public, WSU had even threatened Swan with dismissal if he did not sign an unconstitutional contract obliging him to submit to even more ideological litmus tests.

Washington State’s then-current “dispositions” criteria, similar to those used at colleges of education nationwide, required students to have a commitment to vague ideological concepts such as “appreciat[ing] and valu[ing] human diversity,” sensitivity to “community and cultural norms,” and respecting “others’ varied talents and perspectives.” WSU made no effort to ensure that these broad requirements were not used to discriminate against students with political perspectives that might conflict with those of their professors. Other education programs require students to have a commitment to “social justice,” another oft-politicized concept.

“Most everyone professes to believe in ‘diversity’ and ‘social justice.’ But the problem is that no two people define the terms the same way,” said Lukianoff. “The danger of ‘dispositions’ is that they mandate subjective and politicized evaluations of students and therefore often result in the enforcement of official viewpoints. It is not an educator’s job to police students’ beliefs.”

After FIRE intervened last fall, exposing WSU to widespread condemnation, the university pledged not to use “dispositions” criteria in an unconstitutional manner. Swan’s path to graduation appeared clear, but no systematic changes were immediately made. The National Association of Scholars also wrote to the U.S. Department of Education about the problem. Then, last week, WSU finally fulfilled its commitment by revamping the dispositions evaluation forms that contained the unconstitutional requirements. The new forms are devoid of language likely to be abused for purposes of ideological discrimination.

“While this new ‘dispositions’ scheme is a true and fundamental improvement over the old one, WSU must be careful not to allow its faculty members to continue to engage in political discrimination in other ways,” noted Lukianoff. “Having the ‘right’ politics must never be a qualification for getting a teaching degree at WSU.”

FIRE has also intervened in a conflict over “dispositions” criteria at Brooklyn College and expects to see more such cases in the future because of the widespread adoption of this evaluation rubric. “Until the abuse of ‘dispositions’ ends, FIRE will be extremely vigilant at America’s schools of education,” Lukianoff concluded.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Washington State University can be viewed at thefire.org/wsu.

Greg Lukianoff, Interim President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org
V. Lane Rawlins, President, Washington State University: 509-335-6666; rawlins@wsu.edu

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