By: Bob Kemper
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Friday, October 14, 2005
Washington --- Today's campus agitator carries a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution in her purse.
Conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly is her idol.
And when Georgia Tech senior Ruth Malhotra watched a women's rally on her campus morph into a showcase for the Equal Rights Amendment --- the Holy Grail of a very different era in youthful social upheaval --- she was appalled.
Malhotra is part of an increasingly influential movement of conservative students who say universities have become liberal indoctrination centers run by left-wing professors. In class, these students charge, many professors press their personal political agendas and belittle students who profess conservative and religious beliefs.
"The times now are very conducive for change," Malhotra said.
The academic freedom movement, as its organizers call it, was launched two years ago by David Horowitz, a self-described leftist radical turned conservative activist and president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in California. It wants schools to examine the political leanings of their faculty and to institute procedures to protect students from professors who discriminate against students who hold different political views.
If the movement succeeds, academics said, intellectual diversity, a cornerstone of higher education, would shift from being the responsibility of the faculty to the right of the student, with students given the authority to say whether professors were fulfilling the obligation to present multiple, relevant views on a subject.
Horowitz's group, Students for Academic Freedom, has chapters on more than 150 campuses and is pushing for state academic-freedom legislation in about a dozen states, including Georgia, with some success, organizers said.
Most recently, the Pennsylvania Legislature in July approved a resolution calling on 14 state-affiliated colleges to render their campus free from "the imposition of ideological orthodoxy."
Now Congress is weighing in.
House Republicans have inserted a provision into the must-pass Higher Education Act urging all publicly funded colleges and universities to ensure they are providing a diversity of ideas in class, which, in interviews, lawmakers describe as balancing the predominant liberal doctrine with conservative views.
Democrats tried to kill the provision in the House Education Committee but lost in a party-line vote.
The provision isn't mandatory, but academics and lawmakers said colleges and universities are likely to feel pressured by it.
"These folks know what academic freedom means," said Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), a member of the House Education Committee whose district includes the University of Georgia. "There's basically no need for the federal government to intrude into the process and start telling folks what they need to do in this area."
But some Republican members of Congress disagree.
"Academic diversity shouldn't end with skin color," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who first introduced academic-freedom legislation in Congress two years ago --- and whose father and sister are college professors.
Level of bias debated
Kingston said the legislation is needed because colleges and universities have failed to adequately address the problem on their own --- a point disputed by Democratic opponents of the bill.
There is no agreement on how widespread political discrimination is on college campuses. Some Democrats and academics say the problem may exist largely in the minds of students who blame their poor performance and low grades on a professor's bias.
Max Burns, a former Republican congressman from Georgia and longtime business professor at Georgia Southern University, is wary of federal intervention into academia. Yet, he said, some professors do use their classrooms to present personal political views and undercut students who are supposed to be learning how to think analytically.
"My preference would be that Congress not involve itself in the academic environment," said Burns, who once held a seat on the House Education Committee. "However, that said, it's frustrating for members of Congress to see what they perceive as a problem and not engage themselves."
Much of the evidence of political discrimination is anecdotal.
"We've had some crazy stories," Sara Dogan, national campus director for Students for Academic Freedom, said.
Students from around the country have posted complaints on the group's Web site about professors who refuse to let them write papers in support of the war in Iraq or President Bush and about college-sponsored events that present only the liberal perspective. Others tell stories of professors threatening to fail them or scolding them in class for espousing conservative or pro-Bush views.
"I've been in school for more than three years now here at Georgia Tech and I've never had an openly conservative professor," said Malhotra, who opened the Students for Academic Freedom chapter at Tech and who also is a state leader in College Republicans. "It's more than an isolated incident, something one professor said in class. It's more of an atmosphere that pervades the campus."
Proponents of academic freedom have investigated the number of registered Republicans and Democrats teaching at certain universities. They cite their finding that Democrats outnumber Republican by anywhere from 5-to-1 to 23-to-1, saying it proves there exists what Dogan called "a blacklisting of conservative professors on campus."
Those claims were disputed by other researchers, including a group of University of Pittsburgh political scientists. While acknowledging that registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans among faculty, the team concluded that the likely culprit was self-selection, not discrimination. Conservatives qualified to teach college classes often opted for more lucrative work in the private sector, they said.
In June, a coalition of 26 higher-education groups led by the American Council of Education issued a statement saying universities "should welcome intellectual pluralism and the free exchange of ideas" and that "neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions."
Students for Academic Freedom seized on it as validation of their claims that colleges and universities were not ideologically balanced, though signers of the agreement denied that. They said the group was only reaffirming a decades-old view held by American colleges that students should be exposed to a variety of viewpoints.
"The fact is political balance and academic balance are different things," said Mark Smith, director of government relations for the American Association of University Professors.
"Higher education is not a place where people should go to have their ideas massaged, reinforced and simply told, 'Yes you're right, you're right about everything.' " Smith said. "It's a place where students should be challenged."
Pendulum swings back
Mel Steely, a retired history professor from the University of West Georgia, characterized the new conservative student movement as just another turn in the social cycle of American campuses. In the 1960s, when Steely began teaching, conservatives, many of them military veterans, dominated the campuses.
They were so wary of infiltration by liberals that Steely caught a student in his Russian history class secretly taping his lectures at the request of a state official who figured anyone teaching about Russia must be a communist. Steely, who kept a picture of Ronald Reagan on his office wall, said some professors certainly are using classrooms to express personal political views --- because they always have.
"You have the right to speak and the other guy has the right to say you're a fool and not to pay any attention to you. It works both ways with academic freedom," Steely said. "So when you talk about getting bias out of the classroom, it's a very difficult thing to do because people are people."
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