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Academic Bill of Rights in the Empire State By: Mitchell Langbert and Phil Orenstein
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, November 18, 2005

From a distance, the Catskill Mountains have a gray-blue tint that is almost as blue as the Hudson River into which its creeks empty.   Politically, in the 2004 election New York State was bluer still.  Except for the fringe Conservative and Libertarian Parties, the political scene here ranges from a right wing flanked by liberal Republicans to a left wing flanked by radical Democrats like New York City Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and current advocate of open admissions and remediation in universities.  We knew that we had our work cut out for us when we decided to lobby Albany for the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR).

Given the political atmosphere, it is not surprising that the New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) and its affiliate, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the local that represents the faculty of the City University of New York (CUNY), are very left wing.  They even have a French-style foreign policy.   To support it, they have made donations to support the defense of Sami Al-Arian, who is on trial in Florida as a Palestine Islamic Jihad terrorist.  At the same time they refused to support the tenure grievance of CUNY Professor KC Johnson who had been denied a promotion because of his moderate Democrat political views—views that are viewed as conservative in the public higher education milieu in New York.

Given the left-wing atmosphere, it is not surprising that in the April 2005 NYSUT assembly, along with resolutions concerning the Iraqi War and other foreign policy questions with which NYSUT occupies its resources, the PSC proposed a resolution condemning ABoR.  The resolution was unanimously adopted.

We wrote several letters to the NYSUT newspaper but they did not respond.  At the same time, Dick Iannuzzi, NYSUT’s president, began a sequence of lies and misrepresentations in an editorial in which he called ABoR “an orchestrated and dangerous attack on academic freedom and a serious threat to the lives (sic) of our colleagues in higher education…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.”

For the last several years we had been thinking about lobbying Albany to counteract the faculty unions’ spin in Albany.  We had started the previous year by meeting with our own representative, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill of Ulster County, and in spring 2005 with State Senator Padavan of Queens.  In meeting with Senator Padavan we brought along a recent St. John’s University graduate from Queens, William Horowitz, who had been given a “D” by a left-wing philosophy professor because he had criticized the United Nations and said that he liked Rush Limbaugh.  William’s “D” in that philosophy class has prevented his admission to graduate school.

Senator Padavan expressed interest in potentially supporting a version of ABoR and said that he would pass the idea along to the higher education committee, which he did.

To further emphasize the need for ABoR, in the summer we drove from Queens to Albany to meet with Senator LaValle’s aide.  Senator LaValle is the head of the Senate’s higher education committee.  Senator Lavalle’s aide suggested that we draft a version of ABoR that he could show to the faculty unions and to the State Senate for its consideration.  While we were in Albany we also attempted to meet with several other legislative aides, who were in adjacent offices, but since the legislature is only in session in the winter and spring, we were only able to reach a one or two aides.  These included several Assembly Democrats (the State Senate is still Republican-controlled while the Assembly is Democrat-controlled).  We learned that seasonality and timing are important and that Democrats as well as Republicans can be supportive of ABoR.

In proposing a bill, we based our version on the ABoR resolution that Congress passed (and that David Horowitz had drafted).  In order to forestall union opposition we decided to propose the softest possible legislation and not to call it the “Academic Bill of Rights” but rather “the New York State Resolution for Academic Freedom”.   Our reasoning was that the unions have taken an emotional stance with respect to the name “ABoR”, and so a different name might defuse their opposition.

Our proposed bill is just a resolution—as a law it would express legislative support for academic freedom as enunciated in the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP’s) own statements and declarations.  It has no teeth whatsoever.  In the preface we selected all the references we could find to intellectual diversity rights.  Our aim was to make it easy to negotiate with the faculty unions.

At first we decided to keep the news of our proposal confidential so that we could rally support before the unions would oppose it.  Unions had mounted media campaigns in other states, and we did not expect an exception in the belly of the Empire State.  Once the bill had been circulated in the Senate, we contacted all of the State Senators and let them know that we would be happy to draft a version of ABoR taken entirely from AAUP statements and declarations if that would placate the faculty unions.

We met with the vice president of the New York Young Republicans and the president of the New York College Republicans, both of whom were supportive.  Then, we spoke to other concerned students and faculty and at local Republican Clubs. In these meetings we heard participants offer example after example of political bias and suppression in New York’s colleges.  A professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College allegedly used his classroom as a podium to curse President Bush on election day, and an English professor at Pace University allegedly used his English course as a forum for semester-long proselytizing about his 9/11 conspiracy theories, hurling invective at a student who disagreed with him.  In the course of our meetings there were several instances where left-wing students showed up to attempt to obstruct the discussion, but we deflected these attempts.

We also drafted letter templates that the New York College Republicans and their parents used to send letters to their senators and assemblyman.

The student newspaper at Binghamton University, Pipe Dream, reported that on October 26 a “forum” was held at the university’s science library.  The gist of the article was that Professors Knuepfer and Fan used the forum to claim that ABoR was a pretext to introduce intelligent design theory into biology courses.  These absurd lies were not counterbalanced by any speaker’s support for ABoR.  The Binghamton forum illustrates the plight of the post-modern university—that the university claims to dispassionately seek truth, but this claim is co-opted by ideologues intent on political indoctrination and deception.  Counteracting this trend, in its November 11 op ed page Pipe Dream published a rebuttal letter that we had written that flatly contradicted the claims that it had reported were made at the October 26 forum.

The battle for ABoR in New York is far from over, but we have a realistic strategy in place.  Although left wing and special interests dominate New York politics, politicians are smart enough to yield to popular pressure from large numbers of students and their parents when publicity mounts.  We believe that we have the potential support of this wider base on our side and that time will provide further opportunities for publicity.

Mitchell Langbert is associate professor of business at Brooklyn College and Phil Orenstein is a systems engineer and manager based in Queens.

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