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Philosophers' Empty Suits By: Sara Dogan
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, August 15, 2005

What follows is a response to the American Philosophical Association's attack on the Academic Bill of Rights. This attack is typical of the entire academic campaign against the Academic Bill of Rights which, as we have pointed out previously, is almost entirely based on misrepresentation of what the bill actually says and a conflation of proposed legislation with the bill itself. Thus it has been claimed (falsely) that the Academic Bill of Rights would impose political criteria on the academic curriculum. In the first place, the Academic Bill of Rights is a proposed university policy. The legislation has been initiated because universities are not interested in holding their faculties to their own academic freedom standards. In the second place, all the legislation proposed is in the form of resolutions and therefore would also not impose any political restrictions on academic behavior. We recently invited two professors -- Russell Jacoby and Kevin Mattson -- to debate these issues in FrontPage magazine. Both professors began by advancing arguments based on the standard misrepresentations of the opposition to the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately just as the discussion moved to real questions, both professors withdrew. At this point in the general debate with our opponents we are forced to conclude that their intellectual case against the Academic Bill of Rights is non-existent.--DH


Response to the American Philosophical Association

By Sara Dogan

The American Philosophical Association’s new report “Threats to Academic Freedom” issued by the Committee for the Defense of the Professional Rights of Philosophers, echoes the tired and faulty rhetoric of the American Association of University Professors in criticizing the Academic Bill of Rights and the academic freedom campaign it has inspired.

False Allegations


Many of the allegations made against the Academic Bill of Rights and our organization, Students for Academic Freedom are demonstrably false. The report claims that our organization’s website maintains a complaint center where students “are invited to post instances of liberal bias they have experienced.”  This is simply untrue. The instructions for this site which are entirely non-political state: “If your rights have been abused in a college course (e.g. unfair grading, one-sided lectures, stacked reading lists), please report this abuse.”  Several students have reported complaints about conservative professors to our site, which have been posted.


The introduction to the complaint site also underlines the reasons for its existence, which bear no relation to the APA’s critique, notably that we are “providing this bulletin board to illustrate the kinds of complaints that students have….Opponents of the Academic Bill of Rights have widely misrepresented it as giving students a license to sue professors and/or legislators a right to step in and fire professors or tell them what they can or cannot do. The Academic Bill of Rights does no such thing. Ideally we are asking universities to adopt these policies which are fully in accord with the principles of academic freedom established in American education over the last 90 years. Universities should put their own grievance machinery in place for assessing student complaints and providing a means of redress.”


The report’s authors again reveal themselves to be ignorant or simply disregardful of the facts when they claim that according to SAF, “Support for abortion rights and environmental legislation and intolerance of religious faith (e.g. opposition to teaching intelligent design along with evolution) are also considered evidence of liberal bias.”


This is manifestly untrue. Students for Academic Freedom has supported a liberal student at Foothill College in California whose conservative ethics professors used the classroom to indoctrinate students in anti-abortion views, including forcing students to look at pictures of aborted fetuses. We have asserted publicly multiple times, that since creationism is not a scientific theory it has no place being taught in a science course. Professors should not be using their positions of authority in the classroom to advocate any political position, whether it is pro-or-anti environmental legislation, or pro or anti abortion rights.


Other allegations in the APA report are stated with little or no supporting evidence. “On some other campuses, zealous support for the ABOR has led to SAF and Young Republican sponsored  vigilante action against faculty perceived as having demonstrated liberal bias: hate-mail campaigns, disruption of instruction by unauthorized cancellation of classes, red-baiting, and the labeling of faculty who oppose the war in Iraq “terrorist sympathizers.” No specific examples of any of these behaviors are provided in the APA report. Given this lack of context, the APA puts readers in a precarious position to judge the truth of these allegations or their seriousness. It is impossible to tell whether the legitimate activities of our organization (encouraging students to contact their professors or administrators about problems) are simply being exaggerated or whether the actions of unrelated individuals are unfairly being attributed to our organization.


The report urges its members that if “ABOR-related incidents” occur on their campuses they should “prevent an escalation of irrationality and rhetoric, insofar as possible.” A good place to begin would be to revise this alarmist report with its irresponsible and unfounded claims.


Misconstruing the Academic Bill of Rights


Both the content and effects of the Academic Bill of Rights are misrepresented by the APA report which bases its conclusions on the faulty analysis of the American Association of University Professors. According to the report, the Academic Bill of Rights would result in “redefining academic freedom and altering the structure of accountability in higher education (emphasis in original).” The report also claims that “the diversity and ‘plurality of methodologies and perspectives’ it would require of colleges and universities is measured by political affiliation, not academic judgment.” Finally, the report states that the Academic Bill of Rights bears a “superficial and misleading representation” to the policies of the AAUP, most notably the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and would “shift responsibility” for implementing principles of academic freedom “from faculty to government.”


We have already answered and refuted each and every one of these false accusations and done so numerous times because they have been repeated by others. Our response to the American Association of University Professors statement can be read in full here. Interestingly, while we have posted the AAUP’s statement in full our site, the AAUP has not returned the courtesy by posting our statement on theirs. This deliberate omission has helped to mislead organizations like the APA.


Our argument in brief: The Academic Bill of Rights does not redefine academic freedom or misrepresent the AAUP policies, but rather seeks the enforcement the AAUP principles by codifying them not just as faculty responsibilities (which can be ignored) but also as student rights. Any serious criticism would be addressed to this reconception and not to red herrings like the alleged consequences of intellectual pluralism, a principle that is already recognized if not always honored.


This past June, the American Council on Education in conjunction with 27 other higher education organizations (including the AAUP), issued a statement affirming this key principle of the Academic Bill of Rights and calling on universities to implement it on their own campuses. “Intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education,” read the statement. “Neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions.” The statement also called for the creation of grievance procedures so that students and faculty members will have the means to redress violations of their academic freedom.


The language in the ACE statement is strikingly similar to that of the Academic Bill of Rights, yet the APA and the AAUP still falsely claim that the principles cited in the Academic Bill of Rights are at odds with the traditions and precedents of academic freedom in our nation.

As David Horowitz’s response to the AAUP statement points out, it is false that the Academic Bil of Rights “invite[s] diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession,” as both the APA and the AAUP claim.  “The Academic Bill of Rights does no such thing,” Horowitz writes. “It expressly rules out measuring anything in the university by political standards. Article 1 of the bill states quite clearly, “No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.” In other words, the bill forbids use of the very political categories that the AAUP claims it invites.”

As for the final accusation -- that the Academic Bill of Rights would shift the responsibility for enforcing academic freedom principles from academics to government officials -- one needs merely to read the text of the Academic Bill of Rights to find that this is not the case. As David Horowitz recently stated in a published interchange with Ohio University Professor Kevin Mattson who made the same error: “The Academic Bill of Rights does not even mention legislatures. The opposition to it that is based on this presumption … is based either in ignorance of what it says, or groundless speculation on what it means, or in bad faith…. The Academic Bill of Rights … was proposed by me as a policy for universities themselves to adopt and [thus] has nothing to do with legislatures, and [legislative] bills….. The Academic Bill of Rights can be adopted directly by universities – which would end the need for legislation.” In other words, the only reason for legislative redress is the refusal of university administrations and faculties to implement principles of academic freedom they already recognize. On the other hand, at this point in time all the legislation is in the form of non-binding resolutions and is not statutory. The remedy for this concern is therefore obvious: Codify the existing principles of academic freedom, applying them to students as well as professors and put in place a grievance machinery to enforce them. The APA should be calling for this rather than contributing to an opposition campaign that will make statutory remedies inevitable.


In Conclusion:


 It is ironic that the report’s authors choose to quote from various Supreme Court decisions in an effort to undermine the Academic Bill of Rights, when all of the quotes serve to support it.


One of the jurists quoted, Justice Felix Frankfurter, wrote: “A university is characterized by the spirit of free inquiry….Dogma and hypotheses are incompatible, and the concept of an immutable doctrine is repugnant to the spirit of a university.”


Compare this statement with the following from the Academic Bill of Rights:


“From its first formulation…the concept of academic freedom has been premised on the idea that human knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of the truth, that there is not humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge, and that no party or intellectual faction has a monopoly on wisdom. Therefore, academic freedom is most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech.”


The members of the American Philosophical Association should read and analyze the Academic Bill of Rights—not because, as the Defense Committee claims, it distorts long-held principles of academic freedom—but because it would restore them to their proper place in the academy.  

Sara Dogan is National Campus Director of Students for Academic Freedom.

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