Now that the dust has settled on the academic freedom hearings that were held in Pennsylvania from September 2005 to June 2006, it is time to look at what was actually accomplished. According to the teacher unions, and their allies in the press, the effort was a "waste of time." This was the editorial comment in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for example. Others found the results modest, if worthy. The Associated Press began its report by noting that the legislative Committee on Academic Freedom had urged Pennsylvania universities "to review and make students aware of academic freedom policies." This was a corrective to the existing state of affairs, in which students were generally unaware that such policies exist. If you don’t know your rights, you might as well not have them.
But this was only the tip of the iceberg of what the hearings in Pennsylvania actually accomplished. The hearings were held over nine months at four locations: Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Millersville and Philadelphia. What they revealed was startling:
- All of Pennsylvania’s academic freedom provisions were written to protect professors;
- Students in Pennsylvania did not have any academic freedom rights; and
- Not a single public university in the Commonwealth had academic freedom provisions that applied to students.
Administrators from five Pennsylvania universities appeared before the committee and claimed that students were already protected by the academic freedom regulations on their books. But when the regulations were actually examined by the Committee, it was evident that they applied only to professors. In other words, students not only did not know their rights, they didn’t have any. The Committee has recommended that this deficiency be corrected, and Pennsylvania universities have already step forward to do so.
As soon as the hearings were concluded in June, the trustees of Temple – one of the three large public universities in the state – undertook to write a new policy called "Faculty and Student Rights and Responsibilities." The policy went into effect on August 1, 2006. For the first time in Pennsylvania history, Pennsylvania students have been provided with academic freedom rights. These rights are accompanied by a new grievance machinery specific to academic freedom matters, along with a system that reports abuses directly to the board of trustees.
Shortly after the new Temple policy was announced, the faculty senate at Penn State passed its own new Policy 20-00 which states, "Students having concerns about situations that arise within the classroom, or concerns with instructor behavior in a course that violates University standards of classroom conduct as defined in Policy HR64 ‘Academic Freedom,’ may seek resolution according to the recommended procedures established under Policy 20-00, Resolution of Classroom Problems." As at Temple, Penn State academic freedom policy previously applied only to professors.
Penn State Policy HR 64 is one of the most powerful statements of the meaning of academic freedom on the books. It states:
The faculty member is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his/her subject. The faculty member is, however, responsible for the maintenance of appropriate standards of scholarship and teaching ability. It is not the function of a faculty member in a democracy to indoctrinate his/her students with ready-made conclusions on controversial subjects. The faculty member is expected to train students to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently. Hence in giving instruction upon controversial matters the faculty member is expected to be of a fair and judicial mind, and to set forth justly, without supersession or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators. (Emphasis added.)
This would be powerful enough, but the policy also states:
No faculty member may claim as a right the privilege of discussing in the classroom controversial topics outside his/her own field of study. The faculty member is normally bound not to take advantage of his/her position by introducing into the classroom provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects not within the field of his/her study.
In other words no speeches on the Iraq War in English classes where the course matter is not about Iraq or American foreign policy. No in class attempts to promote a political candidate during elections. No personal agendas that have nothing to do with the academic subject the students have signed up for.
The adoption of these new policies is a watershed event in the history of education not only in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but nationally as well. Pennsylvania is the first state in the nation where universities have instituted academic freedom policies that protect students as well as professors. May the rest of Pennsylvania’s universities follow the examples of Temple and Penn State, and may the nation’s universities do so, as well.