Contrary to what the name suggests, the "Academic Bill of Rights" would restrict, not enhance, academic freedom and intellectual activity.
Some useful background
A proposal to adopt an "Academic Bill of Rights" has recently swept state legislature. The proposal is the brainchild of David Horowitz, a writer and activist who openly claims authorship, who argues that colleges and universities discriminate against "conservative" views and those who hold them. Thus, he and other proponents, such as the Students for Academic Freedom, present the ABoR as a way to promote "balance" in the teaching of controversial issues and counter discrimination on the basis of viewpoint.
Horowitz and others contend that the lack of balance ion campus is a result of the predominance of Democrats over Republicans in the professoriate, and that political affiliation of faculty members alone demonstrates the absence of balance in teaching. If so, is the "solution" to replace Democrats with more Republicans? However, basing academic employment decisions on political affiliation is plainly unacceptable. Turning academic appointments into political patronage jobs is not only anathema to educational goals, it is unconstitutional.
Reliance on political affiliation to support the case for the ABoR is itself deeply troubling, since it is at best an imperfect proxy for views on academic subjects, or for professional responsibility and demeanor. The other evidence offered are anecdotes from dissatisfied students. Even if some of these represent valid complaints, they are more appropriately addressed in existing mechanism, through the complaint and review procedures that exist on virtually every college campus.
The language of proposed legislation
While the proposals may seem innocuous, even admirable in parts, they are vague, sweeping, and ambiguous. For example, what precisely is meant by a requirement to foster "a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives" and to "respect all human knowledge"? A 2005 Ohio bill would have prohibited teachers from "persistently introducing controversial matter" that "serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose," but did not define "persistently" or "controversial. Nor is it clear on how "legitimate pedagogical purpose" would be evaluated, or by whom.
Indeed, proposals would chill spontaneous classroom discussion on any subject that might be considered controversial, if the topic is not on the day’s curriculum, as well as courses on "hot topics" in current affairs, like hate speech or pornography, mideast politics, and the justifications for war in Iraq.
The compulsory "organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers" would apparently preclude the chair of the biology department from giving educators advice about efforts to require the teaching of creationism, or the head of the medical school from giving a public talk about FDA policies for drug approvals.
Then there is the requirement that teachers must "make their students aware of serious scholarly viewpoints other than their own." How exactly would this work in the classroom? Should the foreign policy perspectives of Henry Kissinger have been tempered in their classes, because of his conservative and controversial views? What about William Buckley: should he be required to "balance" any course he teaches by engaging in a continuous debate with a representative of the ACLU? Must Abigail Thernstrom, an opponent of affirmative action, provide counter evidence in every class on the subject, even if she thinks it flawed? Must Milton Friedman treat capitalism and Marxism equally?
No single course can present all points of view. Without the freedom to present strongly held views, even if those views are contested or controversial, education will be reduced to a robotic narrative consisting of "on the one hand" versus "on the other."
The "Academic Bill of Rights" will invite complaints, disputes, confusion, and a host of other problems, both practical and theoretical, 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.
For more information, see NCAC's letter to the Ohio State Senate and read the American Association of University Professors' ABoR statement.