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SUNY Needs Academic Freedom By: Malcolm J. Sherman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Dr. Malcolm J. Sherman gave the following testimony before the SUNY Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Standards in New York City on March 16, 2006. It appears here with Dr. Sherman's permission. -- The Editors.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the Academic Bill of Rights. My remarks will focus on issues raised when the ABOR was discussed by the Albany University Senate.

As you know, the substantive provisions of the Academic Bill or Rights are essentially lifted verbatim from various statements on academic freedom made by the American Association of University Professors, including the 1915 founding principles. The normal reaction to the ABOR among those seeing it for the first time and unaware of the controversy now surrounding it, is “who could object to that?”


As a result, opponents have resorted to outrageous misrepresentations, such as the claim that biology departments would be required to teach “creation science” or even that history departments would be forced to include “Holocaust denial.” The relevant provisions of the ABOR read:


Curricula and readings 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. . . . Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major faculty responsibility. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.”


Responsibility for exposing students to the spectrum of reasonable scholarly viewpoints is thus limited to the social sciences and humanities. But even if the principle were extended to biologists, the ABOR would be an internal policy. Outside fundamentalists would not be telling scholars how and where to draw the line between legitimate scientific disagreements – areas where evidence is reasonably judged not conclusive – and what are religious or ethical disagreements, not scientific disagreements. If the Trustees were to endorse the ABOR, SUNY faculty would be deciding for themselves what views fall within the range of legitimate scholarly debate.


No scenario in which fundamentalist trustees impose religious notions of the boundaries of legitimate scholarship is remotely plausible in New York. There is far more reason to fear internal leftist distortions of these boundaries than outside efforts to declare that “creation science” is legitimate science. In this connection I would recommend Morton Hunt’s 1999 book The New Know-Nothings: The Political foes of the Scientific Study of Human Nature. Hunt, a self-described liberal, gives numerous examples of successful efforts to thwart scientific inquiries. While the book is balanced between right-wingers who, for example, object to studying human sexuality and left-wingers, who, for example, object to studying the role of biology in human behavior, only the Left is well represented within higher education. While Hunt was concerned with assaults on freedom of research, these attitudes have consequences for what is taught and not taught.   


Another objection to the ABOR is that it is superfluous; i.e., no one has complained so there is no problem to be fixed. On the Albany campus, the academic freedom committee tried interviewed elected student representatives – without telling them the purpose of the inquiry – and also interviewed the Dean of Undergraduate Studies.  None of these students raised the issues of politicized classes or intolerant or abusive instructors, and the Dean stated that she had received no complaints on such matters.  But of course student leaders are elected by their fellow students, a sizeable majority of whom are liberal. For example, periodic referenda on the funding of NYPIRG regularly pass with over two-thirds of the votes. (A conservative group has mounted a so-far successful legal challenge to this system.) Student politicians tend to be to the left of students as a whole, and it seems unlikely that a conservative student would feel it worthwhile to complain to his student government representative.  


What the academic freedom committee should have done was to solicit the views of conservative students. If the committee had wanted to know, for example, whether gays felt that the campus atmosphere was unfriendly, they would ask gays, not student leaders. 


As it happens I did my own very informal survey one day when the College Republicans happened to have a display in the campus center. I asked the students staffing the table – neither of whom I knew – if they were aware of instances of highly politicized instruction in which views at variance with the instructors were either absent or ridiculed. Both claimed to know of such situations. But alas, neither of them followed through on my invitation to contact me.


As a statistician I would be the last to argue that an informal poll of two students constitutes serious evidence. More pertinent in my mind is that the students’ statements were consistent with my overall sense of the situation. A few weeks ago I was present at a ceremony where portraits of distinguished faculty were unveiled. The emcee felt obliged to comment with respect to one of the honorees that he was a Republican, but a moderate one. She made no comment about anyone else’s politics. The emcee’s remark might have been intended as good natured teasing from a long time colleague. But more likely, it signified that the fact that a first rate scholar was a Republican (even a moderate one) was so unusual as to be highly salient in her mind. In many academic gatherings or socials gatherings of academics it is presumed that we are all fundamentally on the same side.


Some years ago I asked a colleague if he would consider joining the National Association of Scholars – in which I am active, and whose president, Steve Balch, is a prominent supporter of the ABOR. His reply was that he would do so, but only after he was promoted to full professor. Two years passed, he was promoted, and he joined the NAS without further urging from me.


What objective evidence can I produce that there is a problem at Albany. The subjects I teach, mathematics and statistics, are those in which a political ideology is least likely to be injected into the classroom. So my examples are unsystematic, consisting of whatever incidents happened to come to my attention.


But, to give a couple of examples: in December, 2005 the School of Social Welfare sought faculty senate approval for a dual degree program. Among the proposed requirements, listed under “Criteria for Evaluating Academic Performance,” is the following:


Professional Commitment
The social work student must demonstrate a strong commitment to further social and economic justice and to serve persons who are vulnerable, marginalized or oppressed.


Virtually all who speak of economic justice mean at least redistribution if not full scale socialism. Does it follow that in order to be a social worker you must favor the continuation of estate taxes? Are those who believe the Clinton package of welfare reforms successfully reduced dependency to be disqualified from the profession?  My guess is that any social work student who actively and publicly opposed the professional consensus on these issues would encounter hostility – from fellow students as well as from many faculty. The fact that few if any such students have complained is mainly a comment on the self-selection of applicants – not a justification for an essentially political test in an academic program.


Another criterion listed under “academic performance” is “appreciation for diversity.” Social workers must “understand, affirm and appreciate” other individuals “way of life” and values. If one sees absent fathers as a root cause of crime and low school achievement, could one be accused of lacking empathy for the lifestyle chosen by unmarried mothers?


Whether empathy is required also depends on whose ox is being gored. Some years ago the School of Social Welfare cancelled classes and required all social welfare students to attend (and to pay a registration fee for) the convention of the association of Black Social Workers. Displayed at that meeting was an anti-Semitic pseudo-history of slavery (The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews) sponsored by the Nation of Islam. A few Jewish social work students and one professor protested, but the school and the university just buried the issue. This incident took place before the tenure of the current Dean and before President Hall came to Albany. I know about it only because my late wife was a professor in the School of Social Welfare.  


In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the University at Albany’s response was mostly therapeutic: “we feel your pain, we’ll help you heal.”  The then president declared that counseling would be available to all who were affected by this attack. Panel discussions were organized by and prominently featured left-wing faculty who in turn mostly saw 9/11 as retribution for injustices committed or tolerated by the US. I am reasonably sure that none of the panelists at any of the discussions advocated a strong military response, but maybe someone did and I wasn’t aware of it. Attendance was voluntary but the highly skewed perspective of the participants was still a disservice to students.  


The Albany academic freedom committee recommended not only that we support the SUNY-wide Senate in opposing the ABOR; they also suggested that we create an ombudsperson to handle the kinds of complaints for which the ABOR was supposed to create a right of redress. This suggestion is fine as far as it goes, though much will depend on choice of an ombudsperson, and on whether students realize that certain kinds of complaints should be directed to him or her.


The American Council of Trustees and Alumni proposed that course evaluations include questions about how dissent is handled, whether class readings and discussion are balanced, etc. Gathering such data would allow us to get beyond “no-one complains so there’s no problem.”  If universities are serious about preventing classrooms being used for political indoctrination and intimidation they will gather this kind of data. ACTA hired a professionally respected survey firm to gather relevant data. I would be very surprised if the responses of SUNY Albany students are very different from those of the national sample of students at the top 20 colleges. This national survey indicates that the problem is real. For example, 29 percent or respondents felt they had to agree with the professors’ political views to get a good grade, 48 percent reported “totally one sided” campus panels and lecture series on political issues, 46 percent said professors “used the classroom to present their personal political views,” and 42 percent felt that reading assignments presented only one side a controversial issue.


Beyond adopting the ABOR, ACTA wants student rights to be publicized, as we now publicize rules against sexual harassment. Such steps, which they spelled out in some detail, would indicate to students that we were serious about protecting their rights.


Perhaps the main reason the Albany academic freedom committee gave for rejecting the ABOR was the claim that the objective of the proposers was really to force universities to hire conservatives. The language of the bill of course explicitly prohibits hiring on political grounds. But one must acknowledge that some laws that on their face prohibit any discrimination have been used to impose de-facto affirmative action preferences. But not all such civil rights laws have led to this kind of result. Laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation have not led to the preferential hiring of gays. Laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion have not led to minimum quotas for religiously defined groups.


Proponents of the ABOR rightly point to statistics demonstrating the political imbalance between liberals and conservatives among college faculty – especially in the social sciences and humanities where it matters most. The point is not that in the absence of discrimination and discouragement half of all college faculty would be Republicans. The point is rather that the ratios are so skewed as to make it very implausible that the only factor at work is that liberals are more likely than conservative to be attracted to careers as scholars and teachers.


In some fields (anthropology, public health) the ratio of liberals to conservatives is on the order of 30 to 1. At Albany there is or was until recently an organization of English grad students and faculty who called themselves the “Red Theory Collective.” There are literally more self described Marxists than Republicans in the Albany English Department. This wouldn’t matter much if the subject of English classes was literature mainly valued as a window into our inner lives. But in the context of the politicized “new humanities,” whose themes are power relations in which the dominant categories are race, class and gender, the all but complete absence of opposing political perspectives has an impact on the curriculum, and on the kinds of students who are attracted to the field. 


Radical faculty will usually admit off the record (as a Berkeley instructor was foolish enough to state on his syllabus) that conservative students will not be comfortable in certain courses. But from the perspective of such faculty, academic freedom has not been breached. For them academic freedom just means total instructor autonomy: who are you to tell me what I can or can’t do in my own class.  Politicized courses do not generate complaints because conservative students know better than to enroll in them.


It has been noted that liberal intellectuals are mostly at universities, while conservative intellectuals are more likely to be affiliated with conservative think tanks. People can be trusted to decide rationally which environment is more conducive to their career. Horowitz argues persuasively that the low numbers of conservatives reflects passive discouragement and discrimination, and that the numbers of conservative scholars would increase if they believed they had a fair chance. But no one is advocating preferential hiring, and it bears repeating that the ABOR explicitly prohibits such policies.


An example of what Horowitz hopes to accomplish would be for deans to assume the responsibility, for example, of not permitting an English department to hire only post-modernist or deconstructionists. While the latter are leftists without exception, those who study literature for traditional reasons are by no means all conservatives. In fact a majority are probably liberals, even today.


In conclusion, shouldn’t universities be concerned that they are being accused – rightly in my view – of giving short shrift to the views and values of at least half of the population. Do we really want Republicans and conservatives to see us as the enemy? The UUPs reaction to ABOR is that we must stand united and not yield an inch to our enemies. It would be far more fitting if we genuinely sought to understand the perspective of our critics, and to address those concerns that we see as valid.

Thank you for the opportunity to present my views.

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Malcolm J. Sherman is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He also established The Susan Roth Sherman and Malcolm J. Sherman Philanthropic Fund.

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