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The Professors' Union Bares Its Teeth Against Academic Freedom By: Richard Clough
Daily Bruin | Monday, April 19, 2004

Lawmakers in several states have set out to ensure the liberal arts do not get too "liberal."

A new GOP bill to be presented to the California Senate Education Committee on Wednesday has drawn fire from Democratic opponents who believe the proposal undermines academic authority in order to get more conservative college professors hired and assert more legislative influence in the academic world.

The debate highlights the growing concern of a possible liberal bias among college and university faculty in the United States.

Senate Bill 1335, presented by State Sen. Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside, aims to install an Academic Bill of Rights to which the California State universities and California community colleges must adhere. The bill also recommends the University of California voluntarily adopt its principles.

The bill was designed to ensure a plurality of viewpoints in college classrooms and to protect the differing viewpoints of both students and college faculty. Morrow developed his proposal from the Academic Bill of Rights model created and promoted by conservative activist David Horowitz.

"Our children are systematically being denied a full education on too many campuses," Morrow said in a statement.

"They are not exposed to the diversity of social, economic, historical and political perspectives that characterizes the world they will enter upon graduation," he said.

The bill seeks to promote "pluralism, diversity, opportunity, critical intelligence, openness and fairness" in college curricula by ensuring no faculty member can be hired, fired, reprimanded or promoted due to their political or religious beliefs. It also says faculty members cannot indoctrinate students with only a single viewpoint.

Champions of the bill and similar legislation in Colorado, Georgia and Missouri have routinely cited the consistently high proportion of liberal faculty members as evidence of an ideological skew in the teaching and discipline at public colleges and universities.

Students for Academic Freedom, a group founded by Horowitz, analyzed 32 schools around the United States and found the overall ratio of Democrats to Republicans among the faculty was about 10-1.

Of 238 faculty members at UCLA surveyed, the group found that 137 were Democrats, 11 were Republicans and 90 were unaffiliated with a political party.

Though the bill speaks of "intellectual independence" and contains no language about liberals or conservatives, the debate surrounding it nonetheless focuses on left-right imbalance in publicly funded institutions of higher learning.

But some question whether professors' political views truly pose an academic threat to their students.

"We see no connection between who faculty members vote for and how they evaluate students or how they evaluate other faculty members," said Jonathan Knight, director of program in academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors.

Thomas Schwartz, a UCLA political science professor and a registered Republican, said the faculty at UCLA is slanted "very heavily to the left," but he does not see it as harmful to students.

He said political beliefs cannot be entirely divorced from what a professor says in class, but if the professor is honest about his or her personal biases, he or she can still effectively teach students without indoctrinating them.

"Just because you can't do something perfectly doesn't mean you can't do it well," Schwartz said.

The debate has largely hinged on the question of whether the bill is necessary if the political biases of college faculty have no significant effect on student learning.

He says UCLA probably does not need an Academic Bill of Rights.

"The best policy is probably the one we already have," Schwartz said.

UCLA has an official ombuds office in Westwood to informally investigate and consult students' concerns and complaints.

Allegations of a liberal bias have been levied in the political arena before, and while liberal dominance has been proven in terms of absolute numbers of faculty members, actual bias has not been proven.

Wade Teasdale, chief of staff for Morrow, said though the senator "hasn't reviewed any broad studies" of actual liberal bias, he does believe the liberal presence on college and university campuses poses a potential threat to the free expression of political beliefs on campus. The bill, he said, will help prevent future problems.

"When you codify principles of fairness, sometimes they head off emerging problems," Teasdale said.

Beyond potential ideological bias, opposition to this bill has stemmed from the desire to keep the influence of the government out of academia.

The AAUP has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the Academic Bill of Rights for this reason. The group has worked with faculty and administrators in several states to persuade legislators to stop legislation on Academic Bills of Rights to reduce the influence of the government on the academic sphere.

"The problem with the Academic Bill of Rights is that it implicitly undermines the ability of the professors to determine the content of academic programs," Knight said.

"The Academic Bill of Rights fails to take into account the fact that academic departments, using their own best judgments, can determine the appropriate level of diversity (of viewpoints)," Knight said.

But Teasdale said the state has the duty to ensure its entities are properly functioning.

"This bill only applies to publicly funded and governed universities," Teasdale said.

Schwartz said the bill's necessity should be determined by its own merits and not rejected merely to keep the government off college campuses. Since the bill only applies to public universities, he said the level of government influence should not be a determining factor since the state already plays a large role in how the schools are run.

But the AAUP believes the bill will damage the ability of colleges and universities to educate students.

"The community of scholars must be free to determine the quality of scholarship and teaching and to assess alleged violations of professional standards," the AAUP said in a statement. "Academic freedom can only be maintained so long as faculty remain autonomous and self-governing."

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