FrontPage Magazine and Students for Academic Freedom are happy that the issue of Cheryl Holmes' political pontificating in an Indiana University Workplace Safety class are being discussed in the wider media. It was FrontPageMag.com and SAF that led the way on this issue. Our websites featured this story and brought it to the attention of the state of Indiana -- and the nation. -- The Editors.
Cheryl Holmes didn't know about the controversy brewing about the Indiana University class she taught until she started getting hostile e-mail messages from strangers.
They came from around the country, she said, from Illinois, California, Washington, D.C. People who had read about the class accused her, sometimes in what she referred to as hateful language, of being anti-American and anti-Semitic.
"It got to the point that I hated to open my e-mail," she said. "They were accusing me of things I didn't do and taking my words out of context."
Holmes' class, titled "Threats, Violence and Workplace Safety," which explored the risk of terrorism and the history and motivation of terrorists, had become a battleground in a war over academic freedom and bias on the nation's campuses.
The course in IU's department of applied health science was featured in a Jan. 27 story in the online publication FrontPage Magazine. The article, written by Lee Kaplan, West Coast organizer for the conservative group Students for Academic Freedom, was headlined "Indoctrination at Indiana U."
Drawing on course materials and accounts from a student who took the class, it faulted the course for presenting a biased view of Middle East history and politics. It said Holmes, whose background is in workplace health and safety compliance, shouldn't have been teaching a class on the subject.
"The main issue here is that the course was completely off topic, teaching stuff that had nothing to do with workplace safety," Kaplan said in a telephone interview Friday. "It provided a captive audience to be lectured to with false history and a private agenda."
IU's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, which includes the applied health science department, responded by ordering the course content changed so it would relate directly to workplace safety.
Jerry Wilkerson, executive associate dean of the school, said the change was made this semester so the content would reflect the description in the IU course catalog — not because it was wrong to examine terrorism as a workplace safety issue.
"Our only problem with the content was that it needed to match what was given in the course bulletin as the description of the course," she said.
But while the course may have changed, the national controversy continues.
Students for Academic Freedom, which has grown to 125 campus chapters since being created last summer, is calling on Congress and state legislatures to adopt an "academic bill of rights" that would ensure a range of political views are taught in college classes.
The group is affiliated with the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture, run by leftist-turned-rightist David Horowitz, whose anti-slavery-reparations ads in college newspapers angered black students at IU three years ago.
Sophomore Alex Gude organized an IU chapter of Students for Academic Freedom in November and said it has a half-dozen members. While he hasn't had problems with liberal bias in class, he has heard from fellow conservatives who said thay have.
"They'll teach people something that is just an opinion, but they treat it as a fact," Gude said. "That's stifling academic freedom. It's preventing people from getting the full picture."
The American Association of University Professors countered last week with a statement criticizing Students for Academic Freedom and their ads in campus newspapers, which ask students to snitch on professors who vent their liberal bias in the classroom.
"We feel very strongly that controversy is very much a central part of the teaching and research experience," said Jonathan Knight, director of the program in academic freedom for the AAUP. "The way these ads have expressed it, they want to very much constrain what is controversial in the classroom."
At IU, the student who blew the whistle on the workplace safety class has left the university, blaming a lack of support from officials. And Holmes has decided let someone else teach the course, even with the changed content, hoping the personal attacks will cease.
Holmes said the 200-level "Threats, Violence and Workplace Safety" course was developed by another instructor in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But he died, and Holmes, an IU safety administrator, was asked to step in and teach. Later, she was hired as a full-time lecturer with the department and was asked to continue the course, taught in the second eight-week period of each semester.
The syllabus described it as "designed to introduce students to concepts associated with the New World Order, terrorism and warfare involving conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction." In addition to textbook readings on chemical and biological weapons, it used videos, magazine articles, group projects and study guides on topics including history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab society, Middle East oil and the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It's about understanding what is terrorism, what are terrorists' motives, that it's not going away soon, what the weapons are and what students can do to prepare," Holmes said in an interview.
She admitted she isn't an expert on the Middle East, but said she tried hard to draw on reliable and balanced sources.
"I'm being portrayed as having a political agenda," she said. "It's not true. I was trying to do the best job I could with a really challenging subject."
Holmes said she taught the course for two years to more than 500 students and there was never a serious complaint until last semester, when a student e-mailed her to say he was deeply offended by some of the material.
She said she tried to talk to the student privately about his concerns, but he declined.
But the student said her response wasn't satisfactory. She told him she had the support of her department, and he could drop the class if he was unhappy, he said. Contacted through Kaplan, the student refused to allow his name to be used for this story. He was also unnamed in the FrontPage Magazine story.
He said he didn't talk to other students in the class about what he described as anti-Western and anti-modern bias.
"Basically, everyone in the class was there simply to fulfill their requirements," he said. "Nobody really cared."
When the semester ended, the student, who said he received an A in the class, reported his experience in response to a Students for Academic Freedom newspaper ad. The FrontPage article was the result.
He said the class was the reason he left IU and Bloomington and plans to attend college elsewhere. He said he didn't know if the bias he felt was typical of IU or U.S. colleges in general.
Kaplan wasn't so reticent.
"I can tell you it is not an aberration," he said. "I can tell you this stuff is going on all over the country right now."
He said courses like the HPER class, taught to large numbers of freshmen, are perfect for feeding propaganda to a receptive audience.
"You're 17, 18 years old, you're starting college," he said. "If you really don't know anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and your teacher is teaching you this revisionist history … It's really an ideal situation for someone who wants to indoctrinate you in that point of view."
Kaplan said there is absolutely a need for a group like Students for Academic Freedom, regardless of what the AAUP might say.
"We're talking about doing what is supposed to be done in the classroom, not using it as a bully pulpit to force your point of view on 18-year-old students," he said.
But others say the fact that some students accuse their professors of bias isn't necessarily cause for alarm.
"Look, there are 37,000 students on this campus. I'd be very surprised if you couldn't find some students who are unhappy about their classes and what their professors are doing or saying," said Ted Miller, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and president of the IU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
Rabbi Sue Shifron, director of the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center, the Jewish student center at IU, said she reviewed materials for the HPER course and believed they showed an anti-Israel bias.
"What's the purpose of teaching a course about workplace safety and turning it into a course about terrorism?" she added.
But she said bias against Israel or against Jews isn't endemic at Indiana University, and the administration is "very responsive to the needs of minority students."
She said it's a shame that the student who was upset about the class left IU because of it.
"That's what, for me, is the saddest piece of all this — that a student got caught in the middle of what's become a very political issue," Shifron said.
And not just a student. She said the anger targeting Holmes, the instructor, was also wrong. "That's not right, and she didn't deserve that," she said.