Christian DeJohn expected that completing his master's degree at Temple University would take longer than normal after the Pennsylvania Army National Guard sergeant was called to active duty in 2002 for nearly a year.
But more than two years after resuming his studies, DeJohn, 36, still hasn't received final approval of the master's thesis he submitted in March.
DeJohn suspects the delay stems partly from conflicts he had with a military-history professor who, according to DeJohn, often criticized the Iraq war and the Bush administration during class. DeJohn contends it is also retaliation for a critical response he sent to a professor after he received an e-mail invitation to a campus war protest while he was serving a six-month tour in Bosnia.
"These are people who are sitting in judgment on whether I graduate," said DeJohn, who entered graduate school in January 2002.
DeJohn was one of a small number of students who aired their complaints at a recent two-day public hearing at the Philadelphia university before a state legislative panel that is investigating whether Pennsylvania's public colleges and universities are hospitable to divergent intellectual and political views.
Temple officials declined to respond to DeJohn's allegations, citing federal privacy requirements governing student records.
The Pennsylvania inquiry that began last fall is part of a national debate fueled by allegations that liberal professors are infringing on conservative students' right to free speech at taxpayer-funded schools. The controversy has largely sparked more talk than action among state legislatures.
Legislation modeled after an "Academic Bill of Rights" advocated by conservative activist David Horowitz, founder of Students for Academic Freedom, was introduced in at least 15 states, but none passed it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Among other things, the document exhorts professors to present a wide spectrum of intellectual views in the classroom and discourages them from basing students' grades on their religious or political beliefs.
Julie Bell, the conference's education program director, said legislatures have avoided forcing the issue because even public universities typically enjoy considerable autonomy in setting academic policies and procedures.
"Most legislatures have backed away because they really do acknowledge that separation," Bell said.
An Ohio state senator suspended his push for legislation last year after state universities approved a resolution requiring them to ensure students aren't graded on the basis of their political opinions. The resolution gives the schools discretion to set policies for handling academic-bias complaints.
Pennsylvania's probe was authorized by the state House of Representatives at the behest of Rep. Gibson C. Armstrong. The Lancaster County Republican says he merely wants the committee to assess whether political orthodoxy is a widespread problem and whether a legislative remedy is warranted
"I don't think anyone on this committee is interested in seeing the government...interfere in what happens in our State College classrooms," Armstrong said on Jan. 10. State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-College Township, was one of 42 legislators who sponsored legislation that created the committee.
At Penn State, some professors have responded by creating a local chapter of the American Association of University Professors. It's a pre-eminent organization committed to academic autonomy and freedom.
William E. Scheuerman, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said universities fear the prospect of government micromanagement.
"Merely the threat of government intervention is enough, believe me, to frighten college administrators and some faculty so they are less likely to raise tough questions," he said.
Horowitz also testified at the hearing. He acknowledged that it is difficult to verify the accuracy of every bias complaint, but said the problem was documented last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which surveyed 658 undergraduates at 50 colleges and universities.
Among other things, the survey found that half the students surveyed said professors frequently comment on politics in class even when it is not relevant to the courses.
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