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Campus Thought Control By: Eric Ferreri and Hunter Lewis
The Herald-Sun | Tuesday, February 24, 2004


Students in the UNC class were talking about why straight men might feel threatened by gay men.

Tim, a Christian who says his religious beliefs hold that homosexuality is wrong, felt compelled to join the discussion.

He considered his remarks innocent. But the professor saw Tim's conservative viewpoint differently. She sent an e-mail to her students singling Tim out and calling the comments "violent" and "hate speech" that she would never tolerate again.

At Duke University, Matt Bettis recalls his first day in Gerald Wilson's history class last semester.

"He made jokes about Republicans and said he had biases against them," Bettis said. "Everyone else laughed."

Bettis didn't. He promptly dropped the class and posted a message on NoIndoctrination.org, a nonprofit group's Web site dedicated to "promoting open inquiry in academia."

"The professor repeatedly described himself as 'liberal,' which I thought an unusual thing to keep repeating. ... What worried me was the excited and proud manner which he stated it, thusly implying that his politics would be a large part of the classroom experience," Bettis wrote.

At UNC, Duke and beyond, conservatives point to incidents like these as examples of what they see as not merely a liberal bias on campus, but a culture that no longer encourages or tolerates free discussion.

Reading assignments are one-sided, conservatives say. Some students avoid departments like philosophy, women's studies and history altogether, says Madison Kitchens of the Duke Conservative Union. And whole stacks of New Sense, the magazine published twice a semester by the DCU, are tossed into the trash soon after they hit the shelves, he says.

"They disappear quite regularly," said senior Jeff Raileanu of the College Republicans and the DCU. "There's something a little more insidious going on there."

Raileanu, an economics major, also recalled a sociology class where he had to be careful about his opinion of Central America's economy.

"Because the professor had socialist leanings, I felt I couldn't be too critical of Costa Rica's policies for fear of dropping a letter grade," he said.

More Democrats

UNC and Duke officials tend to bristle at the suggestion of bias in the classroom. But they acknowledge that faculty members will insert their opinions into their teaching.

The key is to welcome all points of view and to keep opinion and course subject matter separate, said Richard Soloway, interim dean of UNC's College of Arts and Sciences. The college houses the humanities and social science departments that most often come under fire from conservative students.

Neither Duke nor UNC asks about political leanings in their hiring process, officials say. Still, research from student groups at both campuses suggests that faculties, at least in some departments, are overwhelmingly Democratic.

According to voter registration data culled by UNC's College Republicans and checked by The Herald-Sun, just two of 37 faculty members in the political science department are registered Republicans. By comparison, 28 are registered Democrats.

In UNC's economics department, three of 43 faculty members are registered Republicans; 21 are registered Democrats. The rest are unaffiliated or unregistered.

At Duke, a similar survey by the DCU suggested similar disparities. The DCU recently published the survey in an advertisement with the student newspaper, igniting a campus debate on the issue.

But even if there are more Democrats than Republicans on university faculties, assuming a bias of any sort is a stretch, university officials caution.

Soloway, for one, doesn't think much of the voter registration research.

"We don't do political litmus tests," he said. "I find that kind of inquiry not particularly helpful. The real question, whatever one's affiliation might be, is how is it reflected in the quality of teaching? I've seen no evidence to suggest students aren't getting a quality education at this institution."

And Duke's John Burness, senior vice president of public and government relations, said last week that being affiliated with a party doesn't necessarily mean someone has a liberal or conservative agenda.

'Hostile environment'

That may be, but Tim says his experience at UNC makes him question whether he is free to speak his mind on campus.

During the classroom discussion on gays and straights, he didn't think the word "threaten" was the right term. It's more about being uncomfortable, he said.

Tim's comments came near the end of class. He didn't think much more about them until he checked his e-mail a few days later. When he did, he was baffled, stunned and angry.

In his in-box was a four-paragraph note from his professor, Elyse Crystall. It was sent to all 33 students in the class.

"Let me start off my saying that I apologize to all of you for not having made clear the first day of classes what I will make clear here and now: that I will not tolerate any racist, sexist and/or heterosexist comments in my class," Crystall wrote, in part, in the e-mail. "What we heard Thursday at the end of class constitutes 'hate speech' and is completely unacceptable. It has created a hostile environment. I am deeply sorry and apologize to those of us who are now feeling that the classroom we share is an unsafe environment, for those who feel vulnerable or threatened."

She referred to Tim by name and called his comments "violent."

Tim admits using the word "disgusted," but only in recounting a story about a straight friend who rebuffed the advances of a gay man. It was his friend who was "disgusted," Tim had said in class.

"This is a discussion-based class where we're supposed to say our opinion," Tim said in an interview last week. "I raise my hand and answer the question, and then I'm blasted the very next day."

Tim, a 20-year-old sophomore from Wake County, considers himself conservative though not overly political.

Angered by his professor's e-mail, he complained to English department officials and spoke to just enough media outlets to elicit an avalanche of interview requests. Many came from conservative television and radio shows.

Tim asked not to be identified for this article because he fears the repercussions and doesn't want to become the center of a politically charged controversy. Still, he looks at the experience with some frustration and anger.

"Nowhere did I say that I hate anybody or that I want to harm anyone," he said, adding later, "What student would want to raise their hand in class after this e-mail?"

Crystall subsequently apologized for her note.

Her class was English 22, known more formally as "Literature and Cultural Diversity." It isn't specifically required, but is one of at least a couple of courses that satisfy a cultural-diversity requirement.

Mistaken impression

In UNC's English department, the e-mail incident was dealt with swiftly. After meetings in subsequent days with both Tim and a department official, Crystall sent out another e-mail, this time apologizing for her first message and pledging a classroom of uninhibited expression.

Asked his interpretation of the incident, English Department Chairman James Thompson took a long breath and groaned.

"Her first e-mail was a serious mistake," said Thompson, who met with the student and instructor both separately and together. "We do not want to give students or anyone else the impression that their voice cannot be heard."

Crystall, who has taught at UNC since July 2000, is a fixed-term faculty member and is not on the tenure track. She admitted that the e-mail was a mistake, Thompson said.

Thompson would not go into detail about any possible punishment. But said he had no plans to fire Crystall, who did not respond to requests for comment.

He did not downplay the damage the incident may have had to the class and classroom dynamic. He plans to monitor the class on occasion for the rest of the semester, he said.

"There is a lot of disruption to this class. It is going to take some work to get it back on track," he said. "This department, the college, the university, does not want to send out the message that we only listen to students with whom we agree."

Spurred by Crystall's first e-mail, the issue was the subject of lively debate on an Internet message board used by students in the class. On it, some students disagreed with Tim's view, while others defended his right to express his opinion.

James Martin, a UNC junior enrolled in the class, said Tim's statements might have caused a little discomfort among some class members but were far from inflammatory.

"I didn't necessarily agree with everything Tim said, but the language of the e-mail bothered me," he said. "The term 'violent' was way out of context, and all the other adjectives she used were very far-fetched."

Missed opportunity

Wilson, the Duke professor whose jokes caused Bettis to drop the class, is a veteran professor and senior associate dean of arts and sciences. He also was apologetic about what happened.

"I just made a flip comment. Stick around, I'll make them about Democrats and preachers, too," the ordained minister said. "Humor enlivens the class and people come back at me, sure."

Wilson said he regrets that Bettis did not stay in the class.

"We could have had some good discussions," he said. "I personally feel that, doggone it, I love to generate discussion."

Another student in the class sided with Wilson, who has been at Duke since 1958.

"He's a really good teacher," said freshman Greg Larkin, a Republican. "You got to be kidding me."

Still, stories like Bettis' are not uncommon from a Duke student body deemed relatively conservative by many on campus.

All of this comes at a time when students' political awareness is on the rise.

Academic Bill of Rights

A survey coordinated by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute found that of more than 276,400 first-year students at 413 colleges and universities, 40 percent were concerned with political affairs, up from a record low of 28 percent in 2000.

While half the students surveyed described themselves as middle of the road, 21 percent said they were conservative, up 1 percent from last year. About 24 percent said they were liberal, down 1 percent from last year.

At Duke, members of the DCU insist they placed their ad pointing out the disparities between Republicans and Democrats professors in the humanities independently of the Center for Popular Culture, the group led by conservative activist David Horowitz.

But a fledgling chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, the campus arm of Horowitz's group, has emerged at Duke. Freshman Stephen Miller has urged the administration to pass an "Academic Bill of Rights," a set of principles that attempts to ensure a diversity of classroom thought. Miller met with President Nan Keohane recently to press the issue again.

"The current policy protects the rights of professors, not of students," Miller said.

But Duke officials supported their current policies last week, saying they wouldn't use a bill or policy crafted by an outside group.

Many academicians have bashed or dismissed Horowitz's bill of rights proposal, calling it little more than an attempt to police academic freedom.

"It's an extraordinary notion of interference with what goes on in the classroom," said Soloway, the UNC administrator.

Students divided

A few weeks ago, Tripp Costas stood up at the semester's first gathering of UNC's College Republicans and asked how many of the 100 or so students in attendance had, in the first two weeks of the semester, run across a "funny" situation in class. By "funny," Costas meant a case of perceived liberal bias in a classroom.

Instantly, 35 to 40 hands shot into the air.

"We had every department covered," recalled Costas, who is president of the student group. "We had an archaeology professor talking about Bush's propaganda machine."

Costas will admit this is all anecdotal evidence, removed from context and subject to interpretation. But he's got a few stories of his own.

There was the English professor who distributed the two-page anti-war e-mail and encouraged students to attend an anti-war protest, saying they wouldn't be marked "absent" if they went to it.

In an economics class, Costas' view of the value of tax cuts was dismissed by a professor who held a differing view, he said. The professor thought tax cuts were a bad idea; Costas supported them.

More recently, he bristled a bit when a well-respected political science professor blurted out, quite matter-of-factly, that President Bush "stole" the 2000 election.

The College Republicans student group draws about 100 students to its meetings and has about 800 names on its e-mail listserv. Costas counts himself among a number of conservative students who feel constantly bombarded by liberal spin from professors.

"They think it's a friendly environment," Costas said recently. "But the student environment is more divided than people think. And there are more conservative students than you might think, but they're hesitant to speak because they might fear being shouted down, or they might fear some grade retribution."

Costas says he's had good experiences in many of his classes, even those taught by overtly liberal professors. But a few "bad apples" can discolor the learning process for a conservative student reluctant to speak his mind, Costas said.

Not surprisingly, a Democratic counterpart has a different view.

"This is an old argument," said Dan Harrison, a UNC senior and past president of UNC's Young Democrats. "I think it's not a function of their voice being welcome, but being not as numerous."

Harrison feels that liberal students at UNC do outnumber conservatives, but the ratio may seem even more out of whack because liberal students tend to be more vocal.

"It's incumbent on the student to speak out," Harrison said. "I've never seen a professor [shout] a student down or belittle a student or in any way stifle a student trying to express an opinion."

And at least one conservative student thinks campus Republicans spend too much time bellyaching.

"So much energy with conservatives is spent complaining about liberals, and a lot of that is completely unfounded," said Brittany Dunstan, a UNC senior who used to be involved with UNC's College Republicans but no longer is. "Just because someone is a registered Democrat doesn't mean he or she will come into class and try to force their liberal ideology on you."

Encouraging discussion

Thad Beyle's political leanings are well known. The longtime UNC political scientist is a proud lefty, and he tells his students as much each semester on the first day of class.

Costas, the College Republicans president, is taking Beyle's North Carolina politics class this semester, and the two joust occasionally. It was Beyle who made the offhanded utterance about George W. Bush stealing the 2000 election, a comment to which Costas took exception.

But overall, Costas said he enjoys the class and knows he's getting a good education. Beyle is perhaps the state's top expert on the subject.

"The man's been around a long time," Costas said. "When he's teaching the subject, teaching the history, it's fair."

Beyle is happiest in class when his students are tussling a little, political ideologies flying about. He knows he's outspoken and offers no apology for espousing liberal views.

"There will always be times when something you believe comes in [to your teaching]," he said. "Sometimes you don't realize it will be antithetical to someone else's point of view."

Duke Senior Justin Walker, a Republican spending this semester on the road documenting the Democratic presidential campaigns, said different viewpoints in the classroom strengthened the debate. And his best teacher was also the most left-wing, Walker said.

"He encouraged us to disagree," Walker said of history Professor Larry Goodwin. "His favorite quote was: 'This is not a class about what I think, but about what you think.'"

Walker said he disagreed with the Duke Conservative Union view that widespread indoctrination exists on campus. Conservatives have to hear the best arguments the left can make, he said.

Walker compared some conservatives to a Union Army intent on doing only parade drills during the Civil War. He said he'd rather test his viewpoint in combat.

"I came away from [Goodwin's] classes more confident in my conservatism because it wasn't a conservatism untested," he said. "I heard the best defense the liberals could offer. You don't learn anything otherwise."




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