The Student Lobbyist Corps at the University of Kentucky is on a mission. The political team's first agenda item is ensuring that students are guaranteed an inclusive intellectual environment by law.
Already in its first draft stage, the new Student Bill of Rights is headed for Frankfort sometime this year and would be the first of its kind: a non-partisan, non-political statement of what students and parents can expect from a college education.
"It's not a new concept," Matthew Ballard, the Student Lobbying Corps' chairman explained at our roundtable discussion. "A number of schools have adopted a student bill of rights, but our bill of rights is written by students for students, not by the administration."
And it's not that students don't already have rights -- they do -- or that these rights are constantly being violated, according Robbie Hopkins, UK Student Government chief of staff.
University regulations and student handbooks tell students what they can't do, but the bill of rights would explain what they can do.
"They don't know they can talk to their professors about grades or that grades can be challenged," said Tyler Montell, a UK Student Body senator.
New students are usually overwhelmed by UK and don't know how to challenge their professors.
"This will give students the information they need and hopefully the courage to speak up and try to make a change," said co-chair Brandy Smith.
An important part of the bill of rights is that it tackles the hot-button issue of political expression in the classroom.
When does a college professor cross the line between teaching and preaching? Is it OK for geography teachers to teach that Operation Iraqi Freedom is an immoral war? The group agreed that expressed opinions are part of the college experience but bashing or praising President Bush every day comes across as indoctrination.
Students pay money to learn the curriculum, not to be indoctrinated, Ballard said, and "both sides of an issue should be presented."
"Ten sides of an issue, if that's how many there are," Hopkins added. "It's about the professors understanding that students have their own values. Yes, they should be exposed to new ideas and discuss new ideas, but they should not be penalized for their values."
Montell recounted a conversation with a student who said that all he had to do was find out what the professor believed and start believing it himself to get an A in the class.
"We want to hear all opinions and find out where we really are," Montell said.
The committee members agree that most UK faculty do a good job and describe the campus as representing a broad cross-section of America.
The lobbying committee was formed last spring after UK's student government decided something had to be done about student apathy.
Student Government President Jonah Brown formed the committee to give students a voice with which to speak to the campus administration and state legislators. The group is committed to improving the level of political discourse on campus in a non-partisan, non-political way.
One of the most promising aspects of the student bill of rights is that it is a positive statement that includes student responsibilities as well as rights.
As Ballard explained, "We want students to know that they can challenge the ideas of their professors and other students, but they must do so in a non-hostile and non-demeaning way. Their opinions must be educated, intellectual and informed."
"Our goal is to create a summary of student rights that is easy to access, and both protects and informs," Montell said.
The committee already has met with state and federal legislators who are dedicated to getting the student rights bill passed.
This month, the group will meet with student government leaders from the state's other public universities and hope they will offer input on the student bill of rights.
"We don't expect to tell the others what to do," Hopkins said. "They may do it differently, even better. But as the flagship University of Kentucky, we believe we have many resources they don't, and it's up to us to lead."
This is a talented group of young people who are committed to intellectual fairness and civility.
That's reason for optimism.
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