David Horowitz pays no heed to the hecklers. He responds politely to challenges during the question-and-answer period. Only when his talk devolves into a sort of free-for-all does he lose his temper.
"This is a demonstration of what brainwashing will do," he bellows into the crowd of about 300, mostly students, gathered on a recent spring evening in a cavernous hall at Pennsylvania State University. "You have sat through (the entire) talk and can't even engage the argument."
Horowitz later says he felt badly about yelling at students. He usually reserves his vitriol for faculty and administrators. But to some, it was quintessential Horowitz.
"Sometimes he gets a little bit over the top," says just-graduated Vicky Cangelosi, 20, who sat up front, in a section reserved for Penn State's College Republicans, the group that sponsored Horowitz's appearance. "I think that indicates that he's very passionate."
Other critics of higher education may argue that today's college campuses are being overrun by leftist professors bent on indoctrinating their students. But nobody is quite as in-your-face about it as Horowitz, 67, a '60s-radical-turned-conservative-activist who has spent the last few years crisscrossing the country to warn students: "You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story."
To Horowitz, an overwhelming majority of hardline leftist professors on campuses have left conservative students complaining that their views aren't welcome. His job, he says, is to see that those students aren't treated as second-class citizens.
He is not a professor; he is a writer, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture and founder of the 2½-year-old Washington-based Students for Academic Freedom, a national organization that allows conservative students to vent.
All Horowitz wants, he says, is a return to the kind of liberal arts education he got at Columbia University in the 1950s, when he still embraced Communism, where professors "taught me what the intellectual life should be like, where you focus on the ideas. It's not a political food fight like so much of our culture has become."
Trouble is, his critics, including a recently created coalition of student, faculty and civil liberties groups, say he doesn't know what he's talking about. In May, the coalition called Free Exchange on Campus released a report aimed at discrediting claims made in Horowitz's new book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (Regnery).
The book profiles faculty who Horowitz says represent the kind of disorder going on in college classrooms today. But professor by professor, the report cites errors, fab- rications and misleading statements, and concludes that Horowitz's research is "manipulated to fit his arguments."
Two examples at Penn State:
• Sociology senior lecturer Sam Richards reinforces class lessons "with 'out-of-class' assignments that include the viewing of left-wing propaganda films, such as The Oil Factor, from which students learn that the 'war in Afghanistan has turned into a bloody quagmire,' ... and Occupation 101, about the horrors of Israel's 'occupation' of Palestinian terrorists,' " Horowitz writes. In the report, Richards responds: Horowitz "disingenuously fails to note that students also receive credit for attending 'conservative' events, including a talk by none other than David Horowitz!"
• Literature professor Michael Berube acknowledges "his classes often have little to do with literature," and he believes "religious people were to be regarded as simply irrational," Horowitz says. In addition to noting that Horowitz "knows nothing about my classroom demeanor or my record as a faculty member," Berube says: "If he were a college student and tried to get away with this garbage, he would indeed be flunked — not for his conservatism, but for his mendacity."
His critics have said the book is akin to a McCarthy-like smear campaign. But Horowitz calls it "a difference of interpretation of what my book is about.
"Long ago, when I came out of the left, I said, 'I need to talk to the Left the way the Left talks to other people,' " he says during an interview on campus tucked between a book-signing and radio show. "So I have been a very aggressive conservative, and I pull no punches."
Politicians are listening
And Horowitz is having an impact. He has had success in Congress pushing his Academic Bill of Rights, a statement of principles that he says reflects his goal to both remove political agendas from campus life and ensure that no students are discriminated against because of political or ideological leanings.
It basically says professors should stick to their area of scholarly expertise in the classroom and welcome a diversity of approaches "to unsettled questions," and students should be graded on academic merit, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs. The bill borrows heavily from standards followed by the American Association of University Professors, an organization that Horowitz sees as part of the problem. Horowitz says his goal is to force universities, through legislation or voluntarily, to extend the same rights to students that faculty have.
Some of Horowitz's language is included in a House-passed bill to renew the federal Higher Education Act. And a similar proposal is pending in the Senate, which makes it likely some form of the provision will be included in any bill sent to President Bush.
Meanwhile, the concept also has captured the attention of lawmakers in about 20 states (depends who's counting), including Pennsylvania, where a House committee today wraps up a series of hearings on the topic.
Horowitz insists what he's asking for is fairly tame. But in Pennsylvania, faculty, who traditionally have been free from government interference, fear a slippery slope. Once a bill becomes a law, "you have no idea where it's going to go," Berube says during a walk across campus. And adopting such a code raises new dilemmas, he and others suggest. If a biology professor discusses global warming, for example, is that science or political science — Who would decide?
State lawmakers have been slow to jump aboard. But even in those states where legislation has failed or stalled, the issue hasn't gone away.
Public university systems in Colorado, Ohio, and Tennessee, for example, have said they'll adopt some form of protection for students in lieu of legislation, and Horowitz says that's good enough for him.
What's the problem?
At Penn State, situated in the geographic and conservative center of the state, university officials insist Horowitz is attacking a problem that doesn't exist.
"The kinds of broad strokes he's using don't characterize Penn State, and I don't think most of higher education," says spokesman Bill Mahon. In the last five years, he says, Penn State has received just 13 complaints regarding classroom bias. (Many are not from conservatives.)
Among students who see no problem is engineering major Kyle Metzgar, 19. He says he is no leftist and has "not had a real stalwart conservative professor." But "I have also never felt discriminated against or that I was in an atmosphere that was not conducive to getting the most out of my education...My biology teacher made fun of the fact that President Bush says 'nu-cu-lar' instead of 'nu-cle-ar.' Who cares?"
College Republicans, though, say many conservative students won't complain for fear of repercussions. That's where Horowitz comes in.
"He's the voice of a movement that needs to be heard," says political science and business major Seth Bender, 20, who escorted Horowitz during his visit here. "I have to sit through lectures every single week listening to someone bash different ideologies and that sort of thing, and [being] called an idiot for what I believed."
Other incidents last semester suggest he has plenty of company. In February, then-sophomore Alfred "A.J." Fleuhr sued the university, saying he feared he would be punished if he expressed his conservative beliefs because the university might view them as intolerant under campus policies. On May 19, the university updated those policies to the satisfaction of Fleuhr's attorneys at the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal advocacy non-profit in Arizona. And the day before Horowitz arrived on campus, administrators in a statement urged the College Republicans to rethink their approach to an event they planned about illegal immigration, saying many would find it offensive. (At one point, they were going to call it "Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day.")
"So my case is made before I even get here," Horowitz told his audience.
Loose with facts
Horowitz says he became involved in the issue after hearing similar stories from students on campuses nationwide. But even before Free Exchange on Campus came along, his foes have delighted in debunking his claims.
In one example, Horowitz claimed a Penn State biology professor had shown the Michael Moore movie Fahrenheit 9/11 before the 2004 presidential elections. When Pennsylvania House committee co-chair Lawrence Curry pressed him during hearings at Temple University in Philadelphia in January, Horowitz acknowledged that his staff could not confirm it had happened, and that he no longer uses that example.
Months later, he's still furious about it. "These underhanded, devious, malicious, dishonest tactics," he says. "I gave 45 minutes of testimony, a half-hour of questions, and I never once mentioned the incident they're referring to...Curry saved it to the very end of the hearings and rammed it to me."
Horowitz similarly has been accused of making up a story about a University of Northern Colorado student who was asked to write an essay on her criminology exam explaining "why President Bush is a war criminal." When the student wrote instead about why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal, Horowitz says, she got a failing grade. Horowitz insists the incident happened: "I located the student and the exam," he says, but "it's a complicated story...The student was terrified."
Even so, Horowitz acknowledges his small staff can't confirm every incident it receives, and his fact-checkers can be "very loose with the truth." But he mostly dismisses the criticisms as inconsequential. "I will stake my life that there are professors all over this country in classrooms who are...venting their prejudices in classes where it has no place."
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