When political science major Kendra Carney enrolled in a new course at the University of California, Los Angeles, she spent as much time reading the professor as she did her textbooks.
Under her watchful eye, Carney was trying to determine if it was safe to come out of her political closet.
“Professors can be very one sided about the opinions so they don’t necessarily cover another angle,” said Carney, a College Republican. “Unfortunately, it’s not an environment in which you can discuss any opinion, because your grade is at stake.”
Her concerns about the academic environment prompted to found the UCLA chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, a national network of 135 college chapters. The movement was started by conservative activist David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture.
Carney recalls a time when one of her professors began to assail President George W. Bush, calling him the anti-Christ.
“I didn’t even know how to begin to challenge a comment like that,” she said. “Everybody should be exposed to other ideas, especially on a university campus.”
Carney, a Christian, is not alone. She’s part of a national movement that is going public with what they call an ongoing problem: a lack of academic freedom for conservative students who do not share the ideology of the liberal-leaning university systems. In addition to the work by Horowitz, several state legislatures, including California, and the federal government are pursuing bills that would guarantee students protections against political bias.
This year, Bill Morrow, a Republican state senator from Oceanside,Calif., authored SB 1335, which would have implemented several affirmative principles to protect the academic freedom of both students and faculty. The legislation failed to make it out of committee, but Wade Teasdale, Morrow’s chief of staff vows the legislation will return next year.
“We expected it to run into a roadblock this year,” Teasdale said, likening the effort to Lexington and Concord “in the start of a revolutionary war.”
After monitoring the situation for several years, Teasdale said it became apparent there is an ongoing problem, noting that Students for Academic Freedom added 135 chapters during its first year of operation.
“That’s a testimony right there as to how serious this issue is,” he said.
“We were deluged by students who were writing and calling in.”
One UC Riverside student, a Green party supporter who testified to his treatment, said he was labeled a racist and neo-Nazi for questioning the campus status quo. Teasdale said the young man was filmed on campus and harassed at home, prompting him to leave the campus and enroll elsewhere.
“There are a lot of nightmare tales,” he said.
Josh Stout, a student at the University of Washington, Seattle, has a few of his own. As in many campuses, Stout said the conservative view is underrepresented among faculty on campus.
“If you show those views with your professors, you will receive a lower grade,” he said. “I’ve been forced to do that as a matter of routine.”
As the leader of the SAF chapter there, Stout has been working to change campus policy.
“The reason I like Students for American Freedom is because it focuses on positive goals instead of focusing on something negative and trying to defeat it,” he said.
A protected class?:
On April 8, he helped to draft a petition to the board of regents to add new language to the university’s discrimination policy by adding the words “political beliefs” to such protected classes as race, religion and gender.
“This is where we have a real problem and that is in the area of faculty hiring,” he said.
His work has prompted numerous anonymous emails from professors who are afraid to express their views for fear of retaliation.
“First, I want to protect the faculty that exists now,” he said, adding that another step will be to work to remove bias from the academic search committees.
Stout, a Christian, admits that being a 31-year-old former Navy man makes him less intimidated than other younger conservatives.
“What I’m excited about is being able to open up education for the next generation of people who come through here,” he said.
“Education is not so much building a skill set … it’s the ability to think critically about all sides presented before you and make a rational decision.”
He’s also been working on the state level, helping to promote a student’s rights bill there.
“You have to hit them where it hurts and where it hurts is with policy and money,” Stout said.
At Colorado State University, Robert Lee, who graduated in mid May, has been working with the SAF chapter at his campus. There they have established proper grievance procedures, making them easier for students. That policy is outlined in the student handbook, and may eventually be incorporate on university syllabi. He said the administration there has been more open to changes than many of the others.
“They are not twisting their moustaches and saying we want to censure them,” he said.
A proposed bill before the state house there, authored by Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield was tabled after a memorandum of understanding was reached among officials at the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the University of Northern Colorado and Metro State to incorporate most of the provisions of the Mitchell bill.
“CSU has been pretty open to reforming its process,” Lee said.
A personal note:
Still, there have been trouble spots. A member of the debate team, Lee decided to turn in a paper on why students should be afforded academic freedom.
After turning in his first draft, there was a note from the professor posing a question to Lee, “Whose right is it to present information in the classroom?” The professor answered the question himself by writing “the professor” in bold letters.
Lee describes the scenario as academic elites who view their roles as educational mentors to “the ignorant students of the world.”
“This whole discussion, this discursive environment, people have been talking about, people have been complaining about it and discussing it for years, but nothing has ever happened,” Lee said. “It just exploded this year. Why? I don’t know.
“What conservative students want is to have an ability to question (their) scholarship and present our own scholarship without retribution,” he said, adding that the policy should apply evenly so “when the wind starts blowing back to the right, like it did in the ’50s, we don’t want the liberal students harassed.”
Teasdale, Morrow’s chief of staff, said that his office received a report of a professor who offered students extra credit to write and send letters to President Bush complaining about the Iraqi war policy. Those who wrote letters commending the policies were not given credit for the assignment.
Reports like these, Teasdale said, lend credence to the need for policy changes.
“It has the flavor of a re-education camp,” he said.
A Web outlet:
Luann Wright, a former educator-turned-advocate, saw the writing on the wall several years ago when her son enrolled at the University of California, San Diego. Upset by the one-sided approach, Wright, a resident of La Mesa, eventually started noindoctrination.org, a tracking site where students can post complaints about professors. Only about 30 percent of the complaints make it online and only after Wright is able to confirm the stories. Professors are given a chance for online rebuttal.
“The interest has been extremely high, we get hits from all over the world,” she said. “That wasn’t the plan when I sent my son off to college.
“It shows there’s a lot of interest out there and a lot of students are frustrated.
Wright, who has become a sought-after source for news agencies across the country, said she hopes the attention paid to the site will help foster some much-needed changes.
“The whole hallmark of education in a free society is open inquiry and free thought,” she said. “There is a value in the marketplace of ideas, where people can express their thoughts and their views.
“The classroom is a workplace. As a workplace we can’t sexually harass, gender harass or racial harass.”
That issue becomes particularly troublesome, Teasdale said, when young 19-year-olds have to go up against older professionals with impressive academic credentials and superior social status.
“It’s a power relationship and many of the professors are abusing their power relationships,” Teasdale said. “It’s about teaching what you should be teaching, about proper balance and perspective to the students. It’s about being an academic professional.”