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Academic Freedom Comes to Kansas By: Scott Rothschild
LJWorld.com | Friday, March 03, 2006


Topeka — A Kansas University professor’s disparaging remarks about Catholics and fundamentalist Christians have helped prop up a measure in the Legislature that supporters say will guarantee academic freedom.

But critics of the resolution say it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and will stifle the freedom it ostensibly protects. They say government should butt out.

“It’s important that these issues be considered on the campus, not in the government, and not have government dictating what fair and balanced is,” said Mark Smith, director of governmental relations for the American Association of University Professors.

The dispute is over what backers call the Academic Bill of Rights.

Opponents point out that the resolution sprang from people and groups often critical of public education, and in particular those who have criticized KU for a recent incident involving religious studies professor Paul Mirecki.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, a supporter of House Concurrent Resolution 5035, said Mirecki’s comments were part of the impetus pushing the measure forward.

“The Paul Mirecki deal showed in detail what many of us have said for many years: Students are afraid to speak out because professors say, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’” Landwehr said.

In November, Mirecki said he planned to teach a course on creationism and intelligent design at KU. But in a message posted on an online discussion board, he said the class would be a “nice slap” in the “big fat face” of fundamentalists.

In the ensuing furor over his remarks, the course was canceled and Mirecki stepped down as chairman of the department of religious studies.

Other states

What supporters call the Academic Bill of Rights predates the Mirecki incident.

In 2004 and 2005, 17 state legislatures considered similar proposals, according to the American Association of University Professors. The furthest the resolution has advanced is approval by the Georgia state Senate and the establishment of a committee to study the measure in Pennsylvania, according to the association.

Kansas, Hawaii and New York are considering the proposal this year.

The measure before Kansas lawmakers states faculty members should not use their courses or positions “for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.”

It also says faculty should expose students to viewpoints other than their own and that curricula, reading lists and the selection of speakers should promote intellectual pluralism. If adopted, the resolution would strongly recommend that every college and university in the state comply with its requirements.

“Any professor worth their salt would enjoy having a good debate and discussions with their students,” Landwehr said.

Professors opposed

The American Association of University Professors has been the main source of opposition to the measure.

“The concern is that these resolutions substitute a political criteria of balance — be it Republican, Democrat, conservative or liberal — for academic criteria,” said Smith, the group’s spokesman.

The association, which has 45,000 members, says the resolution will breed distrust of professors and allow students to stray from scholarly standards.

“If students possessed such rights, all knowledge would be reduced to opinion, and education would be rendered superfluous,” the group has stated.

In answering criticism about heavy-handed faculty, Smith said if professors violate professional standards of neutrality and nonindoctrination, it should be handled by the university.

“We are not in favor of professors indoctrinating students, but it’s important that the faculty deliver interpretations of their discipline,” he said.

Liberal biases

The resolution is the brainchild of author and commentator David Horowitz, an outspoken critic of what he says are liberal biases on campuses.

The measure’s sponsor in Kansas is Rep. Becky Hutchins, R-Holton, who said it was taken from “model legislation” provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which espouses “free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty.”

No hearing has been scheduled on the resolution, but it sits in the House Appropriations Committee, of which Landwehr is vice chair.

Landwehr said she had been asking the Kansas Board of Regents, which supervises higher education, to respond to the resolution, but it hadn’t yet.

Kip Peterson, a spokesman for the regents, said the resolution was being analyzed by faculty representatives at regents universities.

“We are awaiting their response,” he said.

But Keith Yehle, director of government relations at KU, said, “Since the resolution impacts all the regents universities, we will leave that up to the board of regents.”

He added that KU already guarantees freedom of inquiry and speech.

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Scott Rothschild is in charge of the Journal-World bureau in the Kansas Statehouse and covers the Kansas Legislature.


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