Issue 97, Spring 2005
by Joan E. Bertin
From a so-called Academic Bill of Rights campaign to the resignation of a university president in Colorado, academic freedom is under attack.
A sweet-sounding Academic Bill of Rights has been introduced in state legislatures and in Congress through the efforts of activist David Horowitz and Students for Academic Freedom. Horowitz has long charged that colleges and universities discriminate against conservative views and those who hold them, based on his claim that Democratic professors outnumber Republicans and that political affiliation alone accounts for the alleged imbalance and discrimination. Horowitz contends that the Academic Bill of Rights will promote intellectual diversity among faculty.
The legislation seems innocuous: it urges universities to include diverse views in lectures and readings and in the selection of speakers, and to select and award tenure to faculty “with a view towards fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.” But it would expose colleges and universities to political pressures that could chill rather than promote academic freedom and free inquiry, according to the American Association of University Professors and others.
In a letter to Ohio legislators, NCAC and allied groups wrote: “The Academic Bill of Rights will invite complaints, disputes, confusion, and a host of other problems…as well as embroil the legislature in the day-to-day operation of colleges and universities. It may seem like a good idea, but a close examination of what lies behind the rhetoric of ‘balance’ reveals not only a proposal that cannot work in practice, but also represents unwarranted government interference with academic freedom.” To read the full text of the letter, see www.ncac.org.
“Balance” is the rallying cry in the assault against Columbia University’s Middle East Studies Program which has been targeted as “pro-Palestine,” and “anti-Semitic” by an outside group called the David Project. A faculty panel appointed by President Lee Bollinger found no evidence of anti-Semitism or political bias in grading students’ work, but sharply criticized a climate of “incivility” on both sides.
Conservative attacks on higher education have escalated since the November elections. Hamilton College came under attack after TV’s Bill O’Reilly and conservative blogs heaped ridicule on the college for inviting Professor Ward Churchill to speak. Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, was scheduled to speak about prisons but was outed for an essay he had written three years ago in which he suggested that the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were retribution for U.S. policy and compared some of the victims to Nazis. The resulting firestorm led to cancellation of his speaking engagements at Hamilton and other colleges and to calls for his firing by Colorado’s Governor, Bill Owens. Churchill, a tenured professor, is under review by the University whose president, Elizabeth Hoffman, has quit, in part, because of the controversy. In a recent speech, Dr. Hoffman characterized the current climate pervading the country as a “new McCarthyism.”