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Resolution to Reckon With By: David Warren Saxe
Philly.com | Wednesday, July 13, 2005


On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a resolution of epic proportions - an initiative to ensure academic freedom in the Commonwealth's colleges and universities.

Our representatives have established a select committee to examine the state of academic freedom and, though the legislation doesn't specifically say so, to discover whether the political left has indeed overwhelmed the great towers of academia and flooded the minds of its captive students with liberal pabulum and propaganda. A nutty idea in a world of woe and trouble?

The opponents of House Resolution 177, nearly all Democrats, hate this idea of government investing time, energy, and treasure on exploring the depths of higher education for would-be bullies trampling freedoms. Foaming at the idea of government putting higher education on any sort of leash, Democrats have argued that government should let academics govern their institutions as they see fit, within the time-honored traditions established by academia.

Noble words.

For proponents of HR 177, nearly all Republicans, the notion of government oversight on such matters as academic intercourse presents an odd turn of events. Was it not so long ago that academia was devoid of minority voices? Have we forgotten that females and black males were virtually closed out of the highest ranks of higher education as professors and administrators?

And who shouted the loudest for diversity? For affirmative action in higher education to ensure a "level playing field"? To break down the so-called racist and sexist barriers that barred minorities from their rightful place within academia? Was this not the great contribution of Democrats?

And the barriers fell. And then they fell some more. With the great influx of minorities and women into higher education came all sorts of new ideas. The fight to break the barriers to attain faculty positions and promotions became synonymous with fighting for rights per se - for women to fight for women's studies departments, for blacks to fight for African American departments, for homosexuals to fight for same-sex partner benefits.

As these birds of a feather flocked together, they fought and fought. And from so much fighting, they eventually realized they did not have to fight so much anymore. There was less and less resistance to what would have astonished faculty of another generation.

As the new generation of academics displaced the old, traditional ideas such as truth, objectivity, and intellectual discipline were rooted out, ridiculed and redefined under banners of toleration and diversity. The new masters of higher education then leveled the playing field to suit themselves, limiting the range of discourse and reducing intellectual and ideological differences.

This world of higher education moved on, but the world outside remained attached to certain values of honesty and fair play. If it made sense to break the barriers for minorities and women on faculties and to provide a protected platform for their ideas to emerge, does not a forum for other competing notions make equal sense in the great marketplace of ideas?

Fair-minded people must agree that public institutions of higher education are not and cannot become the exclusive domain of either liberals or conservatives. Nor can we suffer any public institution of higher education to become the province of any political party.

So why have we come to this new fight, this battle between Democrats straining to "keep government out of higher education" and Republicans demanding academic freedom for all?

While HR 177 provides the means to discover and measure the state of academic freedom in higher education, the immediate question is why Democrats sought to keep the towers of academia free from prying eyes. If it is true that the majority of faculty members are liberal in disposition and practice, if it is true that these prevailing powers have abused the sacred trust placed by the public on academics to protect and ensure the academic rights of every student and faculty member, and finally, if it is true that conservative voices have no analogous place in academia (although they proliferate outside its towers), then the sponsors of this resolution will have righted a great and terrible wrong.

At the end, whatever is found, the effort to maintain freedom and liberty in our commonwealth remains a worthy, necessary and constant struggle. And the first to recognize the importance of this struggle should be those who were once denied such rights.


David Warren Saxe is an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University and a member of the State Board of Education.


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