[Mitchell Langbert and Phil Orenstein contributed to writing this article -- the Editors]
Candace de Russy, a trustee of the State University of New York and academic reformer, expected trouble when she took up the cause of the Academic Bill of Rights (ABR) at SUNY – as did the other authors of this article, Mitchell Langbert and Phil Orenstein, professors at the City University of New York, when they began to lobby Albany for ABR.
Given the educational politics in New York, we knew that the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and its two local affiliates, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) at CUNY and the United University Professions (UUP) at SUNY, would oppose us. These organizations make no effort to hide their agenda. The PSC, for instance, made donations for the defense of accused terrorist professor Sami Al-Arian, while refusing to support the tenure grievance of CUNY Professor Robert David (K.C.) Johnson, a distinguished historian who had been denied a promotion on grounds of being insufficiently “collegial.”
In the Beginning
In December 2002, David Horowitz, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, met with Thomas Egan, chairman of the SUNY Board; Provost Peter Salins; Vice-Provost Donald Steven; and de Russy, to discuss indoctrination on SUNY’s campuses. In the course of this meeting Horowitz conceived of the Academic Bill of Rights, which he crafted on the basis of the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP’s) own statements about academic freedom. The Bill exhorts public universities to foster a pluralism of views and to prevent discrimination on the basis of political belief.
In January 2005, at a board of trustees meeting, de Russy proposed that SUNY adopt ABR. Shortly after, Chairman Egan stated that “I am fully supportive of assuring a robust climate of academic freedom and intellectual diversity,” adding that proposals such as ABR “deserve serious consideration.” The board then referred the proposal for consideration to its Academic Standards and Student Life Committees – the former chaired by Trustee John Cremins and the latter by Trustee Pamela Jacobs Vogt (who has since resigned from the Board).
By April 2005, William Scheuerman, president of the UUP (and vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT), began a drumbeat of distortion and denial, calling the ABR proposal at SUNY “crazy,” “Orwellian,” and “McCarthyite,” and claiming bizarrely that ABR would encourage Holocaust denial – a strident motif that Joseph Hildreth, president of the SUNY Faculty Senate, soon took up. Scheuerman also called a similar statement on academic rights and responsibilities that the American Council on Education put forth “an appeasement document.”
That same month, the NYSUT assembly unanimously voted to condemn the Academic Bill of Rights. In October, the SUNY Student Assembly, which represents all of the 413,000 SUNY students, also rejected ABR, its president, Josh Hyman, claiming that “ABR could easily put a lid on all student organizing.” (The measure explicitly includes the proposition that “selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers’ programs and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.”)
Dick Iannuzzi, NYSUT’s president, kept up the attack in a May 25, 2005 editorial in which he called ABR “an orchestrated and dangerous attack on academic freedom and a serious threat to the lives [sic] of our colleagues in higher education.” Iannuzzi called Horowitz an “ideologue” and the de Russy proposal “far right.” He added that “this so-called bill of rights would provide a forum for right-wing politicians and others who seek to impose a political agenda in the classroom.”
The Numbers Game
In a December AFT news bulletin, entitled “Guarding Against the Wrong ‘Bill of Rights,’” Fred Floss, co-vice president of both the UUP and AFT, added another variation, describing a SUNY poll which he claimed found no – zero – formal complaints from SUNY’s near half-million students regarding persecution for their political views. “Not only do we not have any problems,” Floss asserted, “but we also have a mechanism if we had problems to make sure this is all taken care of.” Joining in, Thomas Kriger, assistant president of the UUP, told CUNY professor Langbert in an e-mail that the SUNY’s vice-chancellor for student life, Edward Englebride, had “contacted people on SUNY campuses across the state and found not one instance of students filing a complaint” of discrimination because of their political views.
SUNY Press Secretary David Henahan contradicted the Floss/Kriger/Englebride account by stating that the survey had been only of a “classroom-sized” sample of students rather than a SUNY-wide sample. De Russy requested clarification on the matter from University Counsel Andrew Edwards, who agreed that there had been “no formal …’survey’ or ‘poll’ by [his] office as those terms are customarily understood.”
During this period, CUNY professor Orenstein wrote letters to the NYSUT newspaper supporting ABR, but they were not published. Orenstein noted that NYSUT’s refusal to publish his letters amounted to the very kind of suppression that ABR aims to counter and that NYSUT claims does not exist.
Recognizing that there could be no dialogue with NYSUT, Orenstein and Langbert launched a campaign to bring ABR to the attention of New York State legislators. Orenstein began by meeting with State Senator Frank Padavan (R) of Queens. He brought along a recent St. John’s University graduate from Queens, William Horowitz, who had been given a “D” by an international relations professor because he had criticized the United Nations and said that he liked Rush Limbaugh. The grade had prevented the student’s admission to graduate school.
After hearing this story, Sen. Padavan expressed interest in ABR and later passed the idea along to the higher education committee, chaired by State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R). Orenstein, Langbert and William Horowitz traveled to Albany to meet with John D’Agati, LaValle’s aide. D’Agati suggested that Langbert and Orenstein draft a version of the Academic Bill of Rights that he could show to the faculty unions and State Senate for their consideration. Langbert and Orenstein also met with aides of several Assembly Democrats, who were interested in the issues.
Orenstein and Langbert based the measure they drafted on a U.S. Congressional ABR resolution, House Resolution 609 (a section of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act called "Student Speech and Assembly Rights"), Pennsylvania House Resolution 177, and several other bills. In an effort to forestall union opposition they decided not to call it the “Academic Bill of Rights” but rather the “New York State Resolution for Academic Freedom.” Their proposed bill does not include any provisions for penalties, review boards, external investigative bodies or external complaint procedures. In the preface they quoted references to intellectual diversity rights in the AAUP’s own statements. Once the bill had been circulated in the Senate, Langbert informed all of the state senators that he and Orenstein would be willing to draft a version of ABR based entirely on AAUP statements and declarations, if that would satisfy the faculty unions.
They also met with Richard Brownell, the vice president of the New York Young Republicans, and Mike Salomon, the president of the New York College Republicans, both of whom were supportive. Then, Orenstein spoke at several colleges and at local Republican Clubs. In these meetings, participants offered examples of political bias and indoctrination in New York’s colleges. One involved a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College who allegedly used his classroom as a podium to curse President Bush before Election Day. An English professor at Pace University was said to have used his course as a forum for semester-long proselytizing about his 9/11 conspiracy theories. Another professor allegedly hurled invective in class at a student who disagreed with him about the evil of President Bush, continuing his tirade in a two-page email.
Orenstein and Langbert then prepared letter templates so that the New York College Republicans and their parents could send letters to their state senators and assemblymen.
The Problem with Intellectual Diversity
Earlier in the year, as part of her efforts in behalf of the Academic Bill of Rights, de Russy had called for a system wide forum on intellectual diversity. In response, Kimberley Reiser, president of the Faculty Council of Community Colleges (FCCC), which represents the faculty at SUNY’s thirty community colleges, wrote to her delegates: “I fear that a forum would provide Candace [de Russy] and her right wing think tank cohorts the perfect opportunity to spin their message to the press” (emphasis added).
The FCCC then followed through with a series of resolutions urging the SUNY Board “not to adopt the proposed Academic Bill of Rights.” By January 2006, twenty-seven community colleges had adopted resolutions opposing ABR.
The opposition of the faculty was near unanimous. For example, at Onondaga Community College, only one faculty member, Kevin Moore, voted in favor of ABR, later noting his concerns about “the mere appearance of the entire faculty in SUNY failing to agree with a document which seems so fundamental.” Despite Moore’s arguments, NYSUT, UUP and the SUNY faculty senates continued to criticize the ABR in the echo chamber they had created: “Holocaust deniers will have to have their say; intelligent design will have to be taught in biology.” As Moore concluded, “reasoned argument had no impact in such an atmosphere.”
The atmosphere he referred to was captured in a statement by Roger Bowen, general secretary of the AAUP, charging that Ward Churchill (who compared 9/11 victims to Adolf Eichmann) and David Horowitz, architect of the Bill of Rights, were two sides of the same coin--conspiracy-minded “extremists.” And in the December 2005 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Joan Scott, chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom, branded Horowitz’s efforts “affirmative action for the conservative agenda.”
To date SUNY’s trustees have continued to move in lockstep with the faculty unions, refusing to confront the questions that ABR raises.Meanwhile, the student newspaper at SUNY-Binghamton, Pipe Dream, reported in October that an “open forum on academic freedom” had been held at the university’s science library to discuss ABR. The gist of the article was that faculty members Peter Knuepfer and Fa-ti Fan used the forum to discuss the relevance of intelligent design theory to biology courses and to promote the rejection of ABR on SUNY campuses. According to Pipe Dream, Knuepfer and Fan did not invite any speaker who might disagree with them.
The SUNY Trustees refused to openly debate the question of intellectual pluralism and student rights in New York. But CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein obliquely acknowledged these issues in October when he defended academic freedom for students and administrators as well as faculty. And Kermit Hall, president of SUNY-Albany, writing in the fall issue of The Presidency, acknowledged the charges made by ABR’s proponents and called upon higher education leaders to respond: “Only when higher education is willing to address squarely the question of ... political imbalance in faculties… or the existence of an oppressive campus orthodoxy, will we command full legitimacy…Without honest answers, there is real reason to test [David] Horowitz’s claim for the … Bill of Rights.”
But SUNY Chancellor John Ryan has taken no position on the matter, and Chairman Egan has been silent since his encouraging remarks in 2005.
On January 9, 2006, ten Republican state senators (De Francisco, Golden, Johnson, Larkin, Maltese, Meier, Morahan, Padavan, Trunzo and Winner) referred their bill S6336 to the Committee on Higher Education. Unapologetically setting aside concerns about offending the faculty unions, they call the bill the Academic Bill of Rights. It states that students should be graded on the basis of their work; student fee money should be distributed fairly, and administrators should not infringe upon students’ freedom of conscience. It also states that faculty should be hired, fired and promoted on the merits of their work and not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs. It requires that higher education institutions inform students of their rights and of the institution’s grievance procedures for violations of academic freedom. It also requires the governing boards of higher education institutions to develop and publicize a grievance procedure for violations of academic freedom.
The bill states that students in the humanities, social sciences and the arts have the right to expect a learning environment in which they have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion and that all students have the right to be graded on the basis of reasoned answers. It holds that the quality of education should not be infringed upon by instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter that serves no pedagogical purpose.
More recently, at SUNY, Trustee Cremins has pledged that the Academic Standards Committee will hold an open discussion of de Russy’s ABR proposal as part of a debate on intellectual diversity, perhaps to commence in March 2006.
The SUNY and CUNY boards of trustees could still lead their institutions to implement guidelines to restore integrity and academic freedom on campuses. But so far responsible leadership at the trustee level, as with the faculty, has so far failed to emerge. If faculty and board leadership fails, the State Legislature needs to pass ABR or its equivalent. Freedom of expression must be restored to academic life. Our colleges and universities must celebrate intellectual diversity, not trample it.
But as the story of the reception of the Academic Bill of Rights in New York shows, etting there won’t be a cakewalk.
Candace de Russy is a writer and trustee of the State University of New York. Mitchell Langbert is associate professor of business at Brooklyn College. Phil Orenstein is a systems manager based in Queens and formerly an adjunct lecturer of Computer Aided Manufacturing at Queensborough Community College and Farmingdale State University.