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Academic Freedom and Student Rights in Politicized Institutions By: Aaron Barlow
ePluribus Media | Friday, May 02, 2008


Today, we are witnessing a concerted attempt to politicize American public universities through the institution of direct legislative oversight. Bills have been recently introduced in Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia and other states that would allow politicians to meddle in the classroom1. Many of these bills base their legislation on David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) and justify themselves through anecdotal information about abuse of students in the classroom. Each year, legislation of this type is beaten back but, each year, new bills are introduced, much to the frustration of those of us involved in the defense of academic freedom.

The debate is able to continue in large part because it muddles real issues of rights and governance, diverting what should be careful consideration of a number of real issues down unproductive avenues, diverting attention from very real yet distinct problems. For example, the City University of New York (CUNY), where I teach, instituted a new "Student Complaint Procedure" last year over the almost unanimous opposition of the faculty—including mine. 2 My feeling was that the new Procedure was a solution in search of a problem and an opening for challenges to professors that could be used in unsettling political attacks. However, I am now certain that I was wrong—to an extent, at least. If for no other reason than clarification, standard student rights procedures can help us avoid muddying debates on academic freedom. If student rights and student complaint procedures are carefully delineated, they can protect both students and faculty—a need recently brought home to us at CUNY through the attacks on Anthony Gronowicz3 and John Gerassi. 4 The lack of clear internal process or universal statement on student rights makes it possible for outsiders—Horowitz's Front Page Magazine, in the former case5 and The New York Post (reprinted at Front Page Magazine) in the latter6 —to make seem plausible accusations of bias concerning academic freedom that are, on close examination, untenable.

There is something of a sleight-of-hand in the conflation of academic freedom and student rights in this new legislative movement, allowing what seems at first to be an attempt to protect students to also serve as a means for controlling faculty. This conflation is the problem, and the reason we must carefully enunciate student rights. Though Horowitz and confederates like Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) 7 may claim that they are not looking to institute legislative control over faculty and classroom management, that would certainly be the upshot of any of the types of legislation proposed, though its claim is simply protection of students.

As academic freedom is a compact between faculties and university administrations and not, like freedom of speech, a part of the rights for all set up under our system of governance, trying to bring any part of it under legislative control can undermine the entire system. By trying to expand academic freedom to include students, whose needs and responsibilities are actually quite distinct from those of faculty, Horowitz and Neal are purposely opening the door for just such control. Certainly, academic freedom affects students, and the responsibilities towards students through academic freedom need to be monitored by the faculty as a whole. But academic freedom does not include students.

Student rights, however, do need to be stated and affirmed as clearly as is academic freedom, as a protection for both students and faculty. Let me repeat: Doing so will make it impossible to use legislation that is supposed to protect students as a means for controlling faculty, for clear definition of the rights, roles, and responsibilities of each will make jumping from one to the other quite difficult.

Another issue that is conflated with student rights and academic freedom by the likes of Horowitz and Neal is that of freedom of speech. Though the right covers speech on many of our campuses, this is not an academic right, and should not be thought of as such. Also, it does not pertain to situations within the classroom, though students do have the right to speak concerning their classes. They may express themselves, and have every protection all Americans enjoy, beyond, but the classroom (like class work) operates under different constraints. Remember, each class a student takes is an isolated and temporally-constrained situation and is only one of about forty needed for graduation. Restriction in that single class is not restriction of freedom of speech, for that right continues around the class, just as it does around a particular newspaper or magazine that may refuse to print a particular opinion.

After arguing with Horowitz for more than a year—in print, online, and privately—I came to realize that he and I were debating across each other, that neither of us was presenting anything that could lead to something beyond continued acrimony. As one of my points was that his ABOR made no sense in its conflation of three concerns—student rights, academic freedom, and freedom of speech—I decided that the best I could do would be to tease these apart. I did this by taking the ABOR and removing from it those aspects relating to academic freedom and freedom of speech, reworking it into a Student Bill of Rights. With input from Horowitz himself, I finally came up with my present revision, which he claims he has no objection to:

 


Explanation of Changes

 


Student Bill of Rights

An “academic bill of rights” is much too broad of a document to work effectively within contemporary environments of higher education. A university is not a democracy, where each individual’s rights are identical to those of each other. The nature of the roles of administration, faculty, and students are distinct, and the rights of each necessarily reflect those roles. Faculty rights are delineated in the various statements on academic freedom that have been accepted by university administrations, beginning with the AAUP 1915 Declaration of Principles. This document, then, has been changed to reflect only the rights and responsibilities of students.

Academic Bill of Rights

I. The Mission of the University. The central purposes of a University are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large. The separate freedoms of inquiry and speech within the academic community are indispensable to the achievement of these goals. Freedom to teach and to learn depends upon the creation of appropriate conditions and opportunities on the campus as a whole as well as in the classrooms and lecture halls. These purposes reflect the values—pluralism, diversity, opportunity, critical intelligence, openness and fairness—that are the cornerstones of American society.

Because of the conflation of academic freedom and freedom of speech, I felt it necessary to make this alteration, stressing the differences.

I. The Mission of the University. The central purposes of a University are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large. Free inquiry and free speech within the academic community are indispensable to the achievement of these goals. The freedom to teach and to learn depend upon the creation of appropriate conditions and opportunities on the campus as a whole as well as in the classrooms and lecture halls. These purposes reflect the values -- pluralism, diversity, opportunity, critical intelligence, openness and fairness -- that are the cornerstones of American society.

II. Student Freedom

Here again, the change in focus to student rights.

II. Academic Freedom

1. The Concept: Freedom of thought and intellectual diversity are indispensable to the American university. These freedoms are most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech. Though student rights and freedom differ from those of faculty and researchers, they also play an essential role in the success of the university.

AAUP statements on faculty have been omitted as not directly relevant to student rights.

1. The Concept . Academic freedom and intellectual diversity are values indispensable to the American university. From its first formulation in the General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, the concept of academic freedom has been premised on the idea that human knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of the truth, that there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge, and that no party or intellectual faction has a monopoly on wisdom. Therefore, academic freedom is most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech. In the words of the General Report, it is vital to protect "as the first condition of progress, [a] complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results."

Because free inquiry and its fruits are crucial to the democratic enterprise itself, freedom to pursue independent paths of inquiry is a national value as well. This applies to students as well as to teachers and researchers. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire, (1957) the Supreme Court observed that the “essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities [was] almost self-evident.” In our universities, this freedom is already fostered through student choice of major and course. Within that framework, students have additional rights and responsibilities.

As the compact of academic freedom is not under consideration here, the discussion of Keyishian is deleted.

Because free inquiry and its fruits are crucial to the democratic enterprise itself, academic freedom is a national value as well. In a historic 1967 decision ( Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York ) the Supreme Court of the United States overturned a New York State loyalty provision for teachers with these words: "Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, [a] transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned." In Sweezy v. New Hampshire, (1957) the Court observed that the "essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities [was] almost self-evident."

2. The Practice: Like faculty, students must have their own protection from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature. In 1967, the AAUP’s Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students reinforced and amplified this injunction by affirming “the freedom to teach and freedom to learn.” In the words of the report, “Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion.”

Though student rights differ from those of faculty, they have fundamental similarities. However, academic freedom has never (though the ABOR claims otherwise) included students other than in terms of faculty responsibilities. Thus, much of this section has been omitted.

2. The Practice . Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors, researchers and students in the pursuit of knowledge and the expression of ideas from interference by legislators or authorities within the institution itself. This means 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 their control of the university budget.

This protection includes students. From the first statement on academic freedom, it has been recognized that intellectual independence means the protection of students - as well as faculty - from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature. The 1915 General Report admonished faculty to avoid "taking unfair advantage of the student's immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher's own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own." In 1967, the AAUP's Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students reinforced and amplified this injunction by affirming the inseparability of "the freedom to teach and freedom to learn." In the words of the report, "Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion."

Therefore, to secure the intellectual independence of students, whose rights, falling beyond the purview of the established doctrine of academic freedom for faculty and researchers, have not been carefully and clearly delineated, and to protect the principle of intellectual diversity, the following principles and procedures shall be observed:

The distinction between student rights and faculty rights (academic freedom) is once more emphasized. The final paragraph has been deleted for the simple reason that student rights should be recognized on all campuses of every sort, while faculty rights of academic freedom are more limited, being a specific compact between the faculty and the institution.

Therefore, to secure the intellectual independence of faculty and students and to protect the principle of intellectual diversity, the following principles and procedures shall be observed.

These principles fully apply only to public universities and to private universities that present themselves as bound by the canons of academic freedom. Private institutions choosing to restrict academic freedom on the basis of creed have an obligation to be as explicit as is possible about the scope and nature of these restrictions.

 


This is deleted as not relevant to student rights

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.

 


Like the previous point, this one pertains to faculty and not students, so is omitted.

No faculty member will be excluded from tenure, search and hiring committees on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.

Students should always have an open right of appeal in all evaluative situations, and the record of all past appeals should be available, though with protection of student privacy. Grievance machinery should be set up for this purpose.

Though a procedural point, students often do not know that they have this right, making it important that it be emphasized.

 


Students will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers, appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study, and on their conduct in the classroom—not on the basis of other beliefs.

The responsibility of appropriate conduct is added here as a necessary aspect of grading.

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.

Curricula and reading lists should reflect the unsettled character of human knowledge and its progress. Students have the right to know that a view is currently contested within the field of study and to be provided with access to dissenting materials. Students also have a responsibility to reserve judgment, to honestly follow the line of reasoning, rather than rejecting views they disagree with out of hand.

The ABOR point here is so broad as to provide legitimatization of attempts to disrupt a classroom. I have attempted to narrow this and to couple it with the necessary student responsibility to listen first, then ask.

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.

Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions. Students have the right to learn in situations free of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.

Though diversity of opinion is important, it is not the responsibility of each faculty member of provide a “spectrum.” Insisting that it is easily leads to insistence on inclusion of “crackpot” ideas.

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.

Students should have available to them at time of registration all possible information about course choices, including reading lists, syllabi, and faculty biographies, information that will allow them to make their choices in a knowledgeable manner.

As universities rely more and more on adjuncts and contingent hires, students, particularly in lower-level courses, often have little idea of who might be teaching them or what the approach might be. The institutions should work to do their hiring in a timely manner so that such information can be available.

 


A diversity of student voices should be involved in selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers programs and other student activities designed to promote intellectual pluralism. An environment conducive to the civil exchange of ideas being an essential component of a free university, obstruction of this exchange will not be tolerated.

As outside speakers don’t fall under concerns of student rights, a reworking of this point was necessary.

Selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers programs and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.

 


This has been combined into point six of the SBOR.

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.

 


This conflation of the role of a student and the role of a scholar has no place in a Student Bill of Rights.

6. 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.

In a way, what the original ABOR has done is bring student rights into conflict with academic freedom, while seemingly expanding the concept of academic freedom to include students. By separating the issues, perhaps we can make it easier for faculty to put the full force of their support behind real student rights while also protecting their own academic freedom. This separation may help reduce the current politicization of academic institutions by closing one of the doors that those who want to bring universities under legislative control have pried open.

No longer would the cry of “protect the students” be an effective call to pass laws like the Missouri “Emily Brooker Higher Education Sunshine Act” which, according to testimony by Truman State University Professor of History David Robinson’s testimony at a Missouri House of Representatives Higher Education Committee, hearing on 5 February 2008, “would have the opposite effect of its stated intentions: the ‘monitoring, tracking, reporting, and posting’--explicitly required by the bill--would curtail academic freedom by imposing restrictions on what can or cannot be taught.” 8 The bill, according to Keith Hardeman is, Chair of the Communication and Fine Arts Department at Westminster College, is “named after a Missouri State University student who sued MSU because of a professor’s improper grading. The entire department acted poorly. I offer no defense for this absence of professionalism. It was an incredible anomaly in the big picture. But she sued without engaging the MSU appeals process, and once it was employed, the problem was quickly corrected.” 9

If there were a clear, consistent base for such appeals processes adopted within colleges and universities nationwide, there would be lessened possibility for legislators to try to use protection of student rights as an excuse for attacking faculty academic freedom, which, as I have said, has been falsely conflated with student rights.

Institution of the SBOR I propose, or of something like it, would not cause much change in the processes of any college or university. In fact, everything mentioned is already part of student rights just about everywhere. The purpose here is to make it known and to provide a common underpinning, so that we in academia can return to the real issues to improving education and scholarship without so much of the constant sniping from legislators who would bring our public university classrooms, at least, directly under their control.


Footnotes

1 Legislation Tracker for 2008, Free Exchange on Campus,
2 Source
3 Source
4 Source
5 Source
6 Source
7 Source
8 The full testimony can be found here
9 Hardeman, Keith, "Despite Histrionics, Professor Bias Rare" (Columbia Tribune, 2/8/08).

Aaron Barlow teaches English at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn. He is a Columbia School of Journalism Sulzberger Fellow, ePluribus Media Director and Editor. He is also the author of The Rise of the Blogosphere and Blogging America, both from Praeger Publishers.


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