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Witness for Academic Freedom By: Stephen H. Balch
NAS.org | Tuesday, January 03, 2006


[This the executive summary of testimony given by the president of the National Assocation of Scholars at hearings held in Pittsburgh on November 9, by a Pennsylvania House Committee authorized by HR 177, a bill inspired by the Academic Rights, whose purpose is to assess the state of academic freedom on Pennsylvania state college campuses. A third set of hearings will be held at Temple University in Philadelphia on January 9 and 10. David Horowitz and others will testify. -- The Editors]

HR 177 recognizes that academic freedom is likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought. This statement therefore deals with the state of intellectual diversity on Pennsylvania’s state-related and state-owned university campuses.

 

The difference between education and advocacy/activism

 

“To educate” is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as “to train or develop the knowledge, skill, mind or character…especially by formal schooling or study”. “To advocate” is defined as “to speak or write in support of, [to] be in favor of”. “Activism” is defined as “the doctrine or policy of taking positive, direct action, to achieve an end, especially a political or social end”. Each of these terms appears in various policy documents and statements of Pennsylvania public universities.

 

The meanings of these terms are clearly quite distinct. To educate involves opening minds and honing critical thinking capabilities. To advocate involves the imparting of doctrine and the shaping of belief. Activism, for its part, involves carrying a specific set of beliefs into actual political practice.

 

Advocacy and activism have their legitimate roles in the political sphere. But it has long been the consensus of higher educators that the core mission of colleges and universities, apart from research, is education. This was made clear in the founding statement of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915, and more recently in a landmark brief submitted to the Supreme Court by the American Council on Education (ACE) and fifty-three other academic associations, including the AAUP, in the 2003 case of Gratz v Bollinger, which stresses that the purpose of education is to instill the capacity for independent thought.

  

“Educators believe that developing the powers of analysis in this way is not merely one among many skills to be taught; it is the chief skill, because on it rests understanding and freedom. Socrates thought knowledge and freedom so essential, and so dependent on close reasoning, that the unexamined life is not worth living. The purpose of education, held the Stoics who carried his idea forward, is to confront the student’s passivity, challenging the student’s mind to take charge of its own thought. To strengthen the ability to reason is to enable the student to determine what to believe, what to say, and what to do, rather than merely to parrot thoughts, words, and actions of convention, friends or family.”

 

Since education and advocacy (to say nothing of activism) are thus antithetical to each  other, serious issues are raised when universities and their subdivisions engage in  advocacy and activism. Such actions undermine educational purpose and fall outside of authorized mission. Indeed, they transform education into indoctrination.

 

Unfortunately, advocacy and activism are well established in the public university  systems of Pennsylvania, often announcing themselves boldly in department and program  mission statements. That such announcements are considered acceptable is a strong  indicator of how deeply the academic culture of the component institutions has, in some  respects, been deformed.

 

The skewed nature of contemporary professorial opinion

 

A key factor in producing this deformation is the intellectual uniformity that has developed within university faculties and administrations. It is easiest to abuse authority in the absence of the restraint offered by differing viewpoints. There is little countervailing viewpoint in American higher education today. Many studies document this. The most detailed recent study, by Stanley Rothman and colleagues, shows that among American faculty those inclined to the left outnumber those inclined to the right by ratios running from 8/1 in history, to 40/1 in political science. Moreover in the social science and humanities, the fields with the greatest cultural and political relevance, scholars with strongly left inclined views are represented, on average, at levels of about 20%, while those whose views are strongly inclined toward the right are represented in only negligible amounts.

 

Federal Elections Commission data indicates that the situation in Pennsylvania’s public university systems is comparable to the national pattern. Of recorded donations to federal candidates in 2004, 27 Penn State faculty in the humanities and social sciences gave to the Democrats, while only 2 gave to the Republicans, at Pitt the Democratic to Republican ratio was 20/3, at Temple it was 29/3.

 

Recently, the American Council on Education, and twenty-two other organizations including the AAUP, issued a statement affirming that both “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education”. The importance of intellectual diversity has also been affirmed by numerous policy documents of Pennsylvania’s public universities. Unfortunately, however, very little has been done by them to overcome the serious lack of intellectual diversity on their campuses. This contrasts glaringly with their vigorous and multifaceted efforts to promote ethnic and gender diversity.

 

Advocacy and activism within Pennsylvania’s public university systems

 

Programs declaring their involvement in advocacy and activism are uncomfortably numerous. The School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh declares itself  “committed to promoting the values of social and economic justice”, Temple’s social work program states that it is “dedicated to societal transformations to eliminate social, political, economic injustices for poor and oppressed populations”. The Penn State College of Education has as one of its goals, “to enhance the continuing commitment of faculty, staff and students to diversity, social justice, and democratic leadership.” Advertising for the position of professor and associate director of its School of Behavioral Sciences and Education, Penn State Capitol College lists as a requirement “a willingness to advocate for social justice”. The Cultural Studies Program at Pitt sees itself as being: “inclined toward left directed social change," and having the “job” of raising “disturbing questions about how power constructs knowledge…”

 

In women’s studies programs advocacy and activism are at the very center of academic programming. Pitt’s Women’s Studies Program announces that its activities are divided according to a threefold heading, the third of which is “Activism and Advocacy”, noting that the program serves as a “clearing house by helping to connect activist groups with the university community."

 

Even where advocacy and activism are missing from these descriptions there are two other hallmarks of their presence. One is programmatic tendentiousness. The other is the abuse of instructional mandates.

 

Programmatic tendentiousness structures the curriculum, or other aspects of academic programming, so that only a narrow range of serious views on controversial subjects get presented. Many women’s studies programs, for example, describe themselves as focusing on only one theory of sexual differences and relationships, “feminist theory”, which is based on the concepts of “patriarchy” and the “oppression of women”. This precludes other serious viewpoints, such as those of evolutionary psychology or those revolving around traditional family concepts, from getting a reasonable hearing.

 

Women’s studies speaker programs reflect the intellectual narrowness of their curricula. For example, the speakers invited by the Temple Women’s Studies Program between the fall semester 2002 and the spring semester 2004, are listed in the program’s electronically posted newsletter. They are Anne Spinkle, former porn star and performance artist, Arlene Stein, author of “Sisters, Sexperts, Queers: Beyond the Lesbian Nation,” Octavia Butler, a feminist science fiction writer, Marina Walter of the United Nations Civil Service Leadership Development Project, speaking on “Gender and Peace Keeping in Bosnia and other War Torn Regions”, Miriam Cooke of Duke University speaking on “Women’s Jihad Before and After 9/11”, Gerda Lerner of the University of Wisconsin, author of “Creation of Patriarchy, Creation of Feminist Consciousness”, and Cynthia Enloe of Clark University, speaking on “Militarism and Empire: Some Feminist Clues”. There are apparently no speakers in the series defending a traditional perspective on gender.

 

A similar degree of tendentiousness can be found in the “Conference on Ethical Commerce” subtitled “Fair Trade: A Vision for the Future”, also co-sponsored by Penn States’ Rock Ethics Institute, Penn States’ Science Technology and Society Program, and a variety of activist groups. The concept of “Fair Trade” stands in opposition to that of “Free Trade”, yet the lengthy program seems to include no one representing a “Free Trade” position.

 

Abuse of instructional mandates occurs when a program conceived for one purpose is subordinated to an advocacy agenda. One illustration of this is Temple’s summer reading program, ostensibly aimed at providing a common intellectual experience for entering students by providing a book that all of them can read. In the past four years, three of the books, Fast Food Nation, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, and the novel Caucasia, have provided highly critical views of America. The most recent book, West of Kabul East of New York, is not polemical, but nonetheless focuses on the theme of ethnic identity, an endemic preoccupation of academic multiculturalism.

 

These are tips of an iceberg, reflecting institutional cultures that have come to accept advocacy and activism on behalf of “progressive” causes as legitimate academic activities. In fact, advocacy and activism are sometimes undertaken by the very highest levels of university leadership, where one might hope to find corrective action instead. At California University of Pennsylvania, for example, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women takes official positions on foreign policy, having endorsed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which the United States has declined to ratify. The president’s office at Kutztown University co-sponsors the institution’s Diversity Festival, which “celebrates” (Webster’s definition: “to honor or praise publicly), “diversity in all its manifestations –

gender, ethnic, sexual orientation, philosophical and cultural differences – as well as their similarities.”

 

Appropriate legislative response and recommendations for reform

 

What should the legislature do?

 

Opponents of HR 177 have argued that the legislature should keep its hands off universities. But the legislature has a fiduciary responsibility to see that the university adheres to its own doctrines. Penn State says in Policy 64 that “it is not the function of a faculty member in a democracy to indoctrinate his/her students with ready-made conclusions on controversial subjects. The faculty member is expected to train students to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think independently.” Yet the state’s public universities don’t enforce this policy.

 

The extraordinary privileges of academic freedom and tenure are granted by the public and its representatives, precisely because they presume that academic life will be governed by professional norms of scholarly inquiry and education, not advocacy and politics. This then allows one to infer the rightful responsibility of the legislature, which is not to direct the intellectual life of the university, but to exercise due diligence in satisfying itself that the conditions under which autonomy has been granted are truly being observed. Establishing that basic fact is not at all beyond the capability of intelligent laymen, particularly when the problems are, as has been demonstrated, egregious and systemic.

 

Having established the existence of serious problems, what sort of responses should the legislature expect from the state’s public universities.

 

1.) They should expect to see the problem of intellectual pluralism in the humanities and social sciences addressed with the same vigor that the state’s universities are already addressing what they take to be the problem of a lack of ethnic and gender diversity.

 

2.) The universities need to face the problem of appropriate academic mission in a manner that persuades the legislature that they are serious about solving it. If they regard themselves as advocacy and activist institutions, they should at least be up front with the legislature about what they intend to advocate, and seek due authorization. If they are not advocacy and activist institutions, they should inform administrators and faculty alike that this type of behavior is to be done on their own time and without university sanction or subsidy.

 

This takes us back to the even larger question of intellectual standards. To justify its existence, the university must be a institution dedicated to rigor; reasoned discourse grounded in clarity, evidence, and logic; an openness to dissent; and as much objectivity as is possible in taking on difficult and complex inquiries. Pennsylvania’s state universities must begin to devise better institutional means to strengthen the allegiance of its faculties and staffs to these core principles.

 

3.) Universities now routinely ask prospective candidates for administrative positions, and even prospective faculty members, about their commitment to ethnic and gender diversity. They now must begin to ask about their commitments to intellectual standards and reasoned discourse. Presidents, provosts, and deans must begin to believe that progress in their careers will be as much measured by their firm adherence to these ideals as by anything else. In fact, more than by anything else.

 

4.) The legislature must expect a full accounting on progress toward these goals each time the state’s universities seek new statutory authority and renewed financial support. If a good-faith effort is being made to overcome these problems, it should leave the remedial specifics to the universities’ own decision making. If a good-faith effort isn’t made, the legislature should urge governing boards to seek new leadership as a condition of full support. Failing even in that, it might, as a last resort, consider a full-scale organizational overhaul, to develop new governance systems and institutional arrangements better able to meet the obligations that go with academic freedom.

 

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Stephen H. Balch is the president of the National Association of Scholars.


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