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St. Olaf's Academic Freedom Fight By: Kathy Kersten
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 24, 2003


Most college students view political advocacy in the classroom as a fact of life. Generally, however, they despair of doing anything about it.  After all, if administrators and faculty are content to let some professors treat their classrooms like ideological fiefdoms, how can students – at the bottom of the academic totem pole – do anything to stop it?

Here in Minnesota, Center of the American Experiment – one of the nation’s largest state-based think tanks – plans to change this.  We’ve just launched e-Pluribus, a college outreach program that will promote intellectual diversity at campuses across the state. Our goal is to build a new consensus that the classroom is no place for ideological proselytizing, and that a truly liberal education must expose students to many points of view. 

An important aspect of e-Pluribus’ work will be to “let in the light”, i.e., to publicize the degree to which a stifling liberal orthodoxy reigns at Minnesota institutions of higher learning.  We plan to help students “leapfrog” over campus intellectual gatekeepers by connecting them with adults who can press college authorities for greater academic freedom and accountability.  To this end, we are identifying thoughtful, articulate alumni from each Minnesota campus who can advise students at their alma mater, and go to bat for them in exposing bias and demanding intellectual pluralism. 

Since e-Pluribus was launched a month ago, we’ve been surprised at how much we’ve been able to accomplish with straightforward, civil appeals for balance and fairness. A recent incident at St. Olaf College, a liberal arts college in Northfield, MN, illustrates this.

Like their peers elsewhere, St. Olaf students are used to contending with ideological high-handedness. When I visited the campus last spring, many students were simmering about incidents of blatant faculty bias.  Some complained indignantly that St. Olaf’s president, Christopher Thomforde, had sat with anti-war students who were blocking access to the cafeteria to protest the Iraq War.  Other students fumed that their choir director began rehearsal every day with a diatribe against President George Bush. The students hesitated to object because they feared the director would penalize them when they auditioned for a more senior choir.

Fortunately, this fall St. Olaf students had a new ally – e-Pluribus – in their fight for fairness and academic freedom.  So when a faculty member engaged in a blatantly partisan act in mid-November, the students had an effective way to respond.

Here’s what happened: A sociology professor sent his Intro to Sociology classes a three-page email attacking President Bush.  “I send this to you not as your professor,” he claimed, “but as a loyal dedicated American who wants only the best for his country.”

The professor’s email was an Internet screed that purported to be a “resume” of George Bush.  “Ladies and Gentlemen,” it began, “I give you our President.”  Bush’s purported accomplishments included the following: “My presidency is the most secretive and unaccountable of any in US history;” “I am the first president to run and hide when the US came under attack (and then lied saying the enemy had the code to Air Force 1);” “I am the first president in US history to have all 50 states of the Union simultaneously go bankrupt;” “I am the first US president in history to have the people of South Korea feel more threatened by the US than their immediate neighbor, North Korea.” (A rebuttal of the charges in the “resume” appears at http://www.crossbearer.com/resume/The_Truth.pdf.)

Katie Rusch, co-chair of the St. Olaf College Republicans, responded to the professor’s email with a polite but firm email of her own. She thanked him for speaking as a “concerned citizen,” but noted that his email contained factual errors and had offended many students.  The professor sent her a dismissive one-sentence reply.

Frustrated, the students then forwarded the email to me, as director of e-Pluribus, and to a number of influential alumni and supporters. I emailed the professor, pointing out that “sending such material to a captive student audience, which amounts to ideological indoctrination, should be wholly off limits in a community of learners.”  I also forwarded the exchange to college authorities – including the president, the dean of students, the dean of community life and diversity, and the director of communication and media relations – and to others in the community who I knew would be interested.

This time, the professor’s response was different. Within an hour, he emailed an apology to his students and also to campus administrators.  “I am sorry I sent this e-mail to the class,” he wrote. “Even if it caused students to think about their own commitments that differed from my own, I see now that it was not in keeping with the highest goals that I set for myself as a teacher. I am sorry if I offended the students in the class.  Given the political climate that now exists in this country, in the future I will stick closer to the sociological texts I have assigned to my students, and keep my private thoughts to myself.”

The professor responded to my challenge with grace.  In return, I thanked him for “understanding how difficult life on today’s campuses can be for students who keenly feel the lack of intellectual diversity.” The problem was resolved quickly, and good will was preserved. The incident was a small step in the campaign to change the academic climate in Minnesota, and to create a consensus that professors’ role does not include one-sided political advocacy.

In the months ahead, e-Pluribus will expand its presence across Minnesota. We will encourage students to form their own campus organizations – and to start alternative newspapers ­– to challenge left-wing orthodoxy.  St. Olaf, for example, has a new conservative group called Counterpoint, which will launch its paper in December.  St. Olaf students are urging the student board of regents to sponsor a spring forum on intellectual diversity (or the lack thereof) on campus.  They are also working to increase the number of outside conservative and libertarian speakers. In February, St. Olaf will host the annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum, whose approximately 40 speakers and presenters have traditionally been almost exclusively drawn from the left. This year, e-Pluribus has helped identify two conservative speakers – one to address how military strength can promote peace, and the other to explain how “sweatshops” can benefit Third World workers.  If these speakers are approved, Counterpoint members will aggressively advertise the rare opportunity to hear their point of view.

Later this winter, e-Pluribus will take the campaign for intellectual balance to the national level.  In February or March, we will launch a web site – www.e-Pluribus.org – that will provide students with intellectual ammunition on hot topics ranging from feminism and environmentalism to free-market economics.

As the recent incident at St. Olaf makes clear, students can sometimes improve their campus climate by shining a light on ideological bias.  Appeals to balance and fairness may have greater potential to change things than many of us have believed.




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