We feel a bit today like the boy who threw a pebble down a mountainside and watched it set off a raging rockslide. A News story and an editorial published last week on David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights have sparked nearly hysterical journalistic commentary and a faculty petition at a local college urging an investigation into Horowitz's contacts in this state.
One columnist in another newspaper said Horowitz's efforts were right out of the Soviet Union's playbook. Another evoked the Nazis and Joe McCarthy. The petition circulating at Metropolitan State College asks college officials to investigate "the scope and extent of the secret meeting" between state politicians and Horowitz, as if the outspoken author and activist were an agent from an underground revolutionary cell.
Along the way, the Academic Bill of Rights has been characterized as a plan "to force the hiring of more conservative faculty members at the state universities through encouragement, mandate or extortion," inject "more classics in the curriculum" and require the invitation of more conservative speakers onto campus.
In fact, the Academic Bill of Rights advocates none of these things, as any reasonably literate person can quickly establish by going to studentsforacademicfreedom.org and reading the full text (for excerpts, see the column at the bottom of this page). The document specifies no curriculum and insists that "no political, ideological or religious orthodoxy will be imposed on professors and researchers through the hiring or tenure or termination process, or through any other administrative means by the academic institution. Nor shall legislatures impose any such orthodoxy" through control of the budget.
In short, the Academic Bill of Rights advocates precisely the opposite of political litmus tests.
It is true of course that Horowitz, who is also director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles, is promoting the Academic Bill of Rights because he believes colleges overwhelmingly dominated by liberal faculty discriminate against conservative scholars and that too many leftist professors actively use their classrooms to promote their politics. As a result, he insists, many conservative students resent how their views are marginalized and ridiculed. Horowitz frankly wants to use the Academic Bill of Rights as leverage to get universities to live up to the ideals of free and open inquiry and reasoned debate to which they have long been dedicated.
Now, there are basically two possibilities regarding Horowitz's depiction of higher education: Either it is accurate or it isn't. If it's accurate, then maybe higher ed officials do in fact need someone like Horowitz reminding them of the values and practices they're supposed to defend. And if it isn't accurate, then the Academic Bill of Rights is an irrelevant restatement of the obvious and a threat to no one. Metro's faculty can turn off the sirens and relax.
Make no mistake: As we stated one week ago, we oppose any legislative attempt to pressure universities into fostering greater intellectual diversity. Lawmakers have more than enough to do without meddling in faculty hiring, which would probably only end up injecting still more politics into that process. We can certainly understand why the hint of such interference from the General Assembly would alarm faculty throughout the state.
But opposition to legislative meddling is no excuse for anyone to distort the nature of Horowitz's crusade or the Academic Bill of Rights - which just happens to be the protection of intellectual freedom, not the stifling of it.
Addendum: Excerpts from the Academic Bill of Rights
The Academic Bill of Rights discusses the mission of a university and the nature of academic freedom before stipulating eight "principles and procedures" that "shall be observed." They are the following:
"1. All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives. No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.
"2. All tenure, search and hiring committee deliberations will be recorded and made available to appropriately constituted collegiate and university authorities empowered to inquire into the integrity of the process. (The names of committee members may be redacted.) No faculty member will be excluded from tenure, search and hiring committees on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.
"3. Students will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.
"4. Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate. While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.
"5. Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.
"6. Selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers programs and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.
"7. An environment conducive to the civil exchange of ideas being an essential component of a free university, the obstruction of invited campus speakers, destruction of campus literature or other effort to obstruct this exchange will not be tolerated.
"8. Knowledge advances when individual scholars are left free to reach their own conclusions about which methods, facts, and theories have been validated by research. Academic institutions and professional societies formed to advance knowledge within an area of research, maintain the integrity of the research process, and organize the professional lives of related researchers serve as indispensable venues within which scholars circulate research findings and debate their interpretation. To perform these functions adequately, academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry."