When Janice Everly had to miss her English class to participate in a fundraising event for victims of Hurricane Katrina, she thought informing her English literature professor of her absence through e-mail would be convenient and painless. But what she received was an e-mail instructing her to "rabble rouse" in protest of President Bush.
"I COULD give YOU permission to MISS class if you agreed to do some of the rabble rousing (I would do at the yard sale) yourself," her professor said in an e-mail.
After receiving two more anti-Bush e-mails, Everly dropped the class. According to her adviser, her professor had violated her "academic freedom" by sending her material that had no relation to the class subject.
"I was mad," Everly said. "I think I actually even almost cried. I didn't even know it was called academic freedom."
Recently, conservative organizations such as Students for Academic Freedom claim that college campuses across the nation have encouraged political imbalance. By making hundreds of student complaints public through media and Internet outlets, SAF hopes to prove that, especially in Pennsylvania, college professors indoctrinate their students to embrace politically liberal beliefs - a problem they say needs to be remedied.
"This has been an issue for a long time," said Sara Dogan, the organization's national campus director.
But Pitt officials and professors remain unconvinced that academic freedom is a problem on campus.
"There is so little emerging substance," said Philip Wion, an English professor and University Senate member at Pitt. "The proof remains to be seen."
According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which released a study of the top 50 colleges in the United States in 2005, 72 percent of the professors teaching at American colleges described themselves as liberal, while only 15 percent identified themselves as conservative. The study also found that half of the students at these institutions think professors use the classroom to present personal views and talk about politics when it has nothing to do with the course.
ACTA and SAF look at this data as a representation of what is happening on campuses throughout the country.
Dogan said that it's difficult for the organization to record all complaints made since 2001. Although a majority of student complaints appear on the Web site's forum, many are not listed.
From 2004 to 2006, SAF received 368 student complaints that, according to Dogan, represent a small portion of all complaints. Out of the 368 complaints, two came from Pitt students who claimed a history professor who lead an anti-Bush discussion violated academic freedom by introducing controversial material that had no relation to the subject.
Wion said he believes that grievances made over the Internet are not strong evidence that Pitt or other Pennsylvania colleges have an academic freedom problem.
"It's one thing to write something on a blog or on a complaint form, [but that] can not be substantiated," he said.
A statewide academic freedom investigation began at Pitt last November when Pennsylvania's Committee on Academic Freedom conducted hearings on campus. The committee, made up of 10 state representatives, will determine whether state-funded universities infringe on students' academic freedom under House Resolution 177. Students have filed allegations against schools, such as Temple University and Penn State University, who are currently fighting academic freedom lawsuits.
SAF advocates hope that the committee will discover that academic freedom infringements are a problem on Pennsylvania campuses and encourage schools to adopt the Academic Bill of Rights as official university policy. According to SAF's Web site, this bill seeks "to secure the intellectual independence of faculty and students and to protect the principle of intellectual diversity" by taking actions such as hiring faculty members based on their political affiliations.
Although some students testified that they had experienced violations, Pitt Provost James Maher said in a statement that he found no formal allegations and that academic freedom was not a problem.
Sara Callan, who represented Pitt's SAF chapter last semester, said she believes Maher did not find formal complaints within Pitt's judicial system because filing such complaints is time consuming and complicated.
"A lot of students don't raise the concern with the professor and I think that's where SAF comes in," she said.
Everly, who attempted to handle her issue, agreed with Callan. After receiving the e-mails, Everly followed the advice of her adviser and contacted the chair of Pitt's English literature department, John Twyning. She said that after she could not reach him by phone, she stopped trying to resolve the issue.
"I tried to handle it then I gave up," she said.
Twyning said that although he did not recall Everly trying to contact him, he would have been interested in her complaint and would have liked to respond. He said that he never had a student make a complaint about academic freedom.
According to Pitt's guidelines on academic integrity, it is the responsibility of the student to attempt to resolve the matter by personal conference with the faculty member concerned. If this attempt is unsuccessful, students can then bring the grievance to the attention of the department chair and/or dean. If after a series of informal meetings with the committee the aggrieved student is dissatisfied, they can proceed with a formal hearing.
"They make it so long so no one wants to do it," Everly said. "My adviser cared, but no one else did."
Natalie Visnick, a Pitt sophomore and a member of the College Republicans, did not file an official complaint to the University when she received comments from her professor that called her public-speaking speech "heavy handed and somewhat racist."
In the speech she said the 14th Amendment, which grants automatic U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants, should be changed so that "these Anchor Babies are not American citizens and they and their families should be deported back to their native country."
Visnick said she ignored her professor's comments because she didn't want to get a lower grade on her next assignment.
"I would rather let them ramble on because I know how I feel and then, outside of class, speak my mind," she said.
While many Pitt SAF advocates argue that liberal professors across college campuses often give unfair grades to conservative students, Ken Lynch, a Pitt political science major, disagrees.
"It should be called 'Students for Academic Suicide'," he said jokingly. "I think the vast majority is just people angry that they got a C."
William Chase, Pitt professor and chairman of the history department, said he has never received a formal complaint from a student about other professors but has had a student accuse him of bias on teacher evaluation comment sheets.
"You have to be careful that the [academic freedom investigation] doesn't take on the appearance of a witch hunt," he said. "I'm not about to become the thought police."
Pitt English professor Ken Boas, with whom Lynch worked last fall, is the kind of professor SAF might accuse of infringing on students' academic freedom. Last fall, during a freshmen studies course, Boas took the class to an anti-war demonstration outside of the Cathedral of Learning - an occurrence that the SAF student complaint form considers "conducting political activities in class."
But Boas cautioned that everything has a context. In his case, he said he took the students to the demonstration because the theme of the course was dissent.
"What better way to see dissent in action?" he said.
"It didn't matter what students' politics were, they just got to observe."
Lynch said that although Boas was liberal, he thought his classroom was open to and embraced different points of view.
Boas said he believes that SAF and its supporters operate under the "guise" of academic freedom, but do not seek to embrace it. Both he and Wion said they think that "the academic freedom folks" use the political climate to engender fear in university faculty.
"What they are really doing is going after people they have wanted to go after for years," Boas said. "It's total hypocrisy, but it's a brilliant strategy."
Wion, Boas and Chase all agreed that students and faculty should "open up" student complaints to discussion.
Carol Baker, director of Pitt's Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching, said that she can see both sides of the issue because she works with both students and faculty in the evaluation process. Baker said that many professors take their evaluations seriously and visit her office to talk about them.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that works to defend and sustain individual rights, such as freedom of speech of students and faculty at American universities, fields 25 to 100 complaints each week. Charles Mitchell, a FIRE representative, said that FIRE has won every legal case it's fought.
Although FIRE often resolves problems with litigation, Mitchell said that the best solution is communication. Mitchell quoted a popular statement made by Justice Louis Brandeis, which has become FIRE's motto.
"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," he said.
Everly said that if academic freedom abuses went beyond e-mails like the one she received from her professor, she would call Pitt officials and show up at their office to talk about it until the problem was resolved.
"If it happened at Pitt and is happening at Pitt, it should be looked at," Everly said.
"Even if it's happened once, it's a problem."
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