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Washington's Academic Showdown By: Lisa Mak
The Wayne State Guardian | Friday, March 12, 2004

Legislators in the House of Representatives are currently considering an "Academic Bill of Rights" that would encourage universities to develop an environment of intellectual diversity by adopting ideologically neutral hiring practices and academic policies.

The bill was introduced in Congress by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and is supported by conservative lobbyist David Horowitz and his California-based Center for Study of Popular Culture.

According to Horowitz, the bill was a response to trends of the last 30 years, in which liberal professors have increasingly outnumbered conservative ones in a more politicized university setting.

"In the [university] typical faculty, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 10 to one," he said. "This shows that not only is there an absence of Republicans, but there's a rule to keep them out."

The bill protects university faculty members from being hired, fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of their political, ideological or religious beliefs. It also aims to protect students from being graded on ideological grounds.

Furthermore, the bill prohibits faculty from "indoctrinating" students in the classroom and emphasizes exposing students to a plurality of viewpoints on course material.

"The proposal for an Academic Bill of Rights is being made because universities are allowing, and even encouraging, faculty to seduce the innocent, taking improper advantage of unformed minds, rather than encouraging students to understand different viewpoints and come to their own judgments," Sanford Lakoff, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California-San Diego said.

Proponents of the bill claim that often only one political or ideological perspective is taught in classes, while dissenting perspectives are ignored.

Among the bill's opponents is the American Association of University Professors. Although the AAUP agrees with the general principles of academic neutrality and opposes indoctrination, it states that such issues should be handled by educational institutions, not by outside bodies of government.

"There's a fundamental problem with the government imposing a balance on the university," said Mark F. Smith, director of government relations for AAUP. "In terms of academic decisions, the government should not impose any ideological or intellectual standards on the university."

Smith said students should use university grievance procedures if they feel they are being graded unfairly due to political or ideological differences.

The AAUP argues that professors are trained in their respective disciplines and have their own professional and methodological standards, so academic decisions should be left up to faculty members.

"In my teaching and my writings, I have tried to be as objective as possible and to present different viewpoints in their best possible form," Lakoff said. "My ideology does have something to do with the topics I choose to teach or write about ... but in none of these efforts have I sought to present only interpretations I agree with."

Opponents of the bill fear that in attempting to achieve a balance of perspective at universities, ideologies will be used to evaluate faculty members, as opposed to standards of the academic profession.

Proponents, however, respond that the bill will not create political quotas for faculty and is committed to the independence of the universities while still allowing professors and students to express and be exposed to a variety of opinions.

"There's nothing in the bill that says we want more conservatism," Stephen Anderson, Kingston's legislative assistant said.

Some UCSD students oppose the bill.

"Far from hindering our education, our professors ask students to be inquisitive and critical [and] take nothing at face value," John Muir College sophomore Phong Wu said. "[The bill] would push for greater university politics."

Others, however, argue that the bill is necessary to ensure academic diversity.

"The [bill] is a necessary law because it ensures students who have a different perspective will not be discriminated against academically," Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore Justin Ryan said. "That protection currently doesn't exist, especially at more liberal schools such as the UC system, since the academic freedom code exists but isn't adhered to. If you ignore the liberal professors and the angry conservatives, the bill makes a lot of sense."

The bill is being considered in the Subcommittee of 21st Century Competitiveness under the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

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