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Academic Freedom: The Antidote to Leftist Whiners By: Steve Salerno
The (Allentown, PA) Morning Call | Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Early this month the Pennsylvania Legislature empanelled a committee to examine whether professors at state colleges are turning their classrooms into bully pulpits for promoting (mostly left-leaning) political agendas. Like similar initiatives under way in a half-dozen other states, the Pennsylvania action is rooted in the Academic Bill of Rights developed by social gadfly David Horowitz. Critics complain that most of the support for such actions comes from conservative factions. To which I would respond, for starters: True…but so what?

The legislature has merely declared that students ''should be protected from the imposition of ideological orthodoxy'' and graded ''based on academic merit, without regard for ideological views.'' It shouldn't matter, therefore, if the resolution were drafted by Rush Limbaugh himself. One might make an analogy to the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says: ''The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.'' Even if the verbiage was written by feminists and designed to right a wrong that disenfranchised women only, the resulting amendment merely prohibits gender discrimination of any kind at the polls.

Academia's extreme reaction to the neutral language in the House resolution is telling. Ivory Tower types long have miscast academic freedom strictly as a safeguard against infringements on the professor's right to say what he pleases. In truth, the concept was always meant to be more inclusive, granting to students as well the right to speak freely, within the bounds of common decency.

Alas, during the 1980s and 1990s, colleges nationwide enacted speech codes that were unambiguously friendly to liberal causes. On some campuses, attacking feminism or Affirmative Action became a punishable infraction. This had little effect on faculty, since their speech, for the most part, already echoed the ideals upheld in the codes. (The academy is as close to a sociopolitical monolith as exists anywhere in society: By some measures, almost 90 percent of professors vote Democrat or liberal.)

But for students, speech codes had the effect of stifling dissent. Though the ''hate speech'' juggernaut has lost some steam, a huge schism remains between how radical a liberal and a conservative student can get. And that is wrong.

Horowitz's bill also contains provisions that have gotten almost no publicity despite the serious problems they address. Here's one: ''Selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers programs and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.'' That pluralism is unheard of on today's campuses. Indeed, in the singular world of the college lecture circuit, not even all minorities are created equal. Colleges are more likely to court cynical African-American voices such as Harvard's Cornel West or poet Amiri Baraka than Ward Connerly, outspoken foe of racial quotas, or Thomas Sowell, a champion of the free market. The implication that you are not a ''real'' African-American unless you proclaim your estrangement from the mainstream is another element of the ideological one-sidedness that students-rights platforms decry.

Of course, what these measures seek first and foremost is at least a good-faith effort at classroom objectivity. The thorniness of this problem was exemplified in a July 12 op-ed column by Prof. Gary Olson. Olson, chairman of Moravian College's political science department, conceded that ''any attempt by a teacher to slant discussion by knowingly misrepresenting, shading or distorting information is unacceptable by any standard.'' He also wrote, ''I readily plead guilty to not being neutral about the topics addressed in my own courses, from sexism, racism and homophobia to what I view as the destructive nature of globalizing corporate capitalism, virulent nationalism and the misuses of religion.'' How likely is it that a professor who characterizes American society in those terms will leave sufficient room for opposing viewpoints?

Olson also observed that, ''The only way truth can emerge and falsehoods be exposed is if … we value tolerance and are open to hearing all points of view. That mission is jeopardized when powerful voices outside the academy attempt to dictate not only how subjects are taught, but by whom.'' True again. But there would be little need for such intervention if the mission hadn't been jeopardized first by so many powerful voices inside the academy.

Steve Salerno has taught writing at three colleges and universities over the last eight years. His new book is 'SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (Crown).


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