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The Smear Campaign Against the Academic Bill of Rights By: Sara Dogan
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Ever since David Horowitz launched his campaign for an Academic Bill of Rights five years ago, the left-leaning teachers unions have declared war on his efforts to protect students from faculty abuses. In opposing his efforts these unions have often been less respectful of the facts than one would normally expect from associations whose purported mission is education. The attacks on the Academic Bill of Rights by the Faculty Association at the College of DuPage, which is a unit of the National Education Association (NEA), is no exception. These attacks have been based on misrepresentation of the Bill of Rights and falsehoods about the intentions of its supporters.

This deliberate smear campaign can be seen both in a letter sent by the Faculty Association to the Board of Trustees and in public comments made by at a December 9th Board of Trustees meeting.

In public comments at a meeting of the DuPage Board of Trustees on December 9th, Faculty Association Vice President Lisa Higgins said, “My comments tonight are meant to help explain what the so-called Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) is and why students, faculty and the community should be alarmed.”

The theme of Higgins’ commentary, taken almost verbatim from the Faculty Association’s letter, was that the Academic Bill of Rights would remove the power to determine academic curricula from faculty and place it elsewhere. This accusation is false. The Academic Bill of Rights would codify standards for academic performance that have been the core of the academic freedom tradition of American universities since 1915, when they were first articulated by the American Association of University Professors in a famous “Declaration on the Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure.” The Academic Bill of Rights contains no statement whatsoever about what authority would determine whether these standards being met. That is a matter left to the educational institutions themselves to determine.

Since the main faculty charge against the Academic Bill of Rights is based on false premises, it is not surprising that Professor Higgins seemed greatly confused in her presentation as to who would actually be the repository of the power to determine curricula, once it was allegedly removed from the faculty. In her presentation she alternately stated that this power would rest either with the Board of Trustees, elected officials, or supporters of the Academic Bill of Rights. Supporters of the Academic Bill of Rights have no desire to administer academic standards at DuPage or any other academic institution. Neither elected officials nor trustees are mentioned in the Academic Bill of Rights. The Academic Bill of Rights proposes a standard of educational professionalism and fairness. It does not propose a system of academic governance. That is a matter best left to the responsible parties.

Consider this misleading statement made by Higgins at the December 9th Board meeting:

“The Academic Bill of Rights or ABOR as it is known, pretends to promote what it euphemistically calls ‘intellectual diversity,’ but in fact it is a set of provisions designed to give its supporters control over what college professors say in the classroom.”

Professor Higgins doesn’t explain why a standard proposing that students should be exposed to more than one point of view on controversial matters should be interpreted as controlling what professors say in the classroom anymore than university regulations against racial discrimination or sexual harassment already do. Would it be acceptable to Professor Higgins if a geography professor taught her students that the earth is flat? All professional standards require a degree of self-control by members of the profession. The real question is whether the standards are appropriate or not.

Professor Higgins has no comment, however, on the standards of fairness and professionalism that the Academic Bill of Rights proposes. Instead she makes an unfounded even absurd accusation: “ABOR supporters apparently hope that the bill will give elected officials the power to dictate what theories, data and critical interpretations would be allowed in a classroom.”

As already noted, the reference to elected officials is a red herring that merely reflects the desperation of the union opposition to the Academic Bill of Rights which dictates only that faculty be fair and that faculty refrain from using their classrooms to impose sectarian orthodoxies on their students.

Professor Higgins, speaking for the Faculty Association, is so abusive of the truth that it is worth noting that the Academic Bill of Rights specifically prohibits interference in university affairs and curricula by external agencies, stating that:

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” (emphasis added).

Course curricula are specifically mentioned only once in the Academic Bill of Rights in a passage affirms faculty’s basic prerogative to determine the content of their courses, noting that “teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views” and cautioning only that faculty should “welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.”

The Academic Bill of Rights has been a pioneering document in defending student rights to a fair and professional instruction. In June 2005, at the behest of university presidents across the country, the American Council on Education (ACE), representing more than 1,600 college and universities in the United States, issued a statement that was a direct response to the Academic Bill of Rights campaign. The statement declared that “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education.” Except for the substitution of the term “intellectual pluralism” for “intellectual diversity” this was the central idea of David Horowitz’s campaign.

A recent publication of the esteemed Brookings Institution, authored by a university president and two professors, credits Academic Bill of Rights author David Horowitz with inspiring the ACE statement. The book, Closed Minds? notes that the ACE statement “blended traditional concepts of academic freedom with an endorsement of intellectual pluralism and student rights as championed by Horowitz.” Thus, in opposing the principle of intellectual diversity or intellectual pluralism, the DuPage Faculty Association is also opposing the views of 1600 universities and university presidents.

As intellectual pluralism is the central tenet of the Academic Bill of Rights, Professor Higgins’ claim in the following statement is 100% false: “Supporters of ABOR argue that no student should be confronted with ideas that are in conflict with his or her political or religious beliefs.” Jacqueline McGrath, an English professor at the College of DuPage who also spoke at the meeting, repeated this charge, claiming that “The Academic Bill of Rights…would require COD teachers to share with students only mainstream ideas and material.”

These statements are false. The Academic Bill of Rights specifically states that it is a “major responsibility of faculty” to expose students “to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses.” It does not say that students should be exposed only to mainstream ideas and material. It says the opposite: students should not be restricted to one side of any controversial question.

Higgins made an additional false claim when she declared that the Academic Bill of Rights “has been considered and widely rejected elsewhere around the country and for good reason…We don’t know of any state that has enacted it into law,” a statement that also appears in the Faculty Association letter.

In fact, each of the state legislative bills inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights took the form of a non-binding resolution, not a statute. These resolutions urged universities to consider the principles of professionalism and fairness codified in the Academic Bill of Rights but did not require them to do so, or in fact to do anything. There was never an attempt to make the Academic Bill of Rights law.

In Ohio, the legislation was withdrawn when 17 public colleges and universities agreed to adopt the ACE statement that “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education.”

In Colorado, the legislation was withdrawn when the presidents of Colorado’s state universities agreed to put the principles of the Academic Bill of Rights into effect. Both houses of the legislature then unanimously adopted a joint resolution urging the state’s public college and universities to adopt provisions based on the Academic Bill of Rights. In return, the presidents of the state’s major public campuses signed a Memorandum of Understanding pledging to provide protections to students of all political viewpoints and emphasizing that “Colorado's institutions of higher education are committed to valuing and respecting diversity, including respect for diverse political viewpoints.”

Another crucial misrepresentation of the facts by Higgins and the Faculty Association letter is that the College of DuPage already has a policy on academic freedom that protects students along with a complaint procedure which students can use to redress grievances. These provisions do not in fact currently apply to students. They are listed in section C-2 of the Faculty Association contract, and are part of that contract and consequently refer only to faculty.

The DuPage College Catalogue does contain a section on Student Rights and Responsibilities, but it states only that students “can rightfully expect that the college will exercise with restraint its power to regulate student behavior” and states nothing about intellectual diversity, intellectual pluralism or students’ academic freedom. The existing student grievance and harassment procedures also do not mention academic freedom or disputes related to a student’s political beliefs.

Section C-2 of the Faculty Association contract on Academic Freedom, referred to in both the Faculty Association letter and in Higgins’ statement to the Board of Trustees, states that “Faculty Members shall be free to present instructional materials which are pertinent to the subject and level taught and shall be expected to present facets of controversial issues in an unbiased manner” (emphasis added). But what if faculty members do not present controversial issues in an unbiased manner. Shouldn’t students have a right to expect them to do so? And shouldn’t they have a regulation and grievance procedure that protects that right? That is what the Academic Bill of Rights proposes to provide.

Finally, the most oft-repeated canard against the Academic Bill of Rights by DuPage faculty members is that its endorsement of intellectual diversity would force the teaching of creationism as a counterpart to evolution in biology classes. The DuPage Faculty Association repeats this falsehood in its letter to the Board of Trustees, claiming that “ABOR supporters apparently hope that the bill will give elected officials the power to dictate, for example, whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution in college biology.”

Again this is false. The Academic Bill of Rights does not require the teaching of all views on every topic, or any particular viewpoint. Morever, the only spectrum of opinion which it proposes that professors should explore is “the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses.” Creationism is not a scholarly viewpoint recognized by the biology profession. Therefore creationism would not be an appropriate view to introduce in a biology course, although this decision is a prerogative of the individual professor.

In conclusion, the objections made against the Academic Bill of Rights by the DuPage Faculty Association are baseless, and repeat falsehoods that have been refuted many times by supporters of the Bill.


Sara Dogan is National Campus Director of Students for Academic Freedom.


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