On Friday, April 15, the National Education Association in conjunction with the American Federation of Teachers announced a joint lobbying effort to combat a provision in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act inspired by our Academic Bill of Rights which would promote greater intellectual diversity in our nation’s colleges and universities and combat discrimination against students for their political, religious, or ideological beliefs.
In a press release announcing their opposition, the NEA and AFT deliberately mischaracterize the Academic Bill of Rights and the provisions in the Higher Education Act which echo its language and intent.
The misrepresentation of the Bill is apparent even from the subheadline of the release which declares that “Proposed changes in the Higher Education Act would…create an ideological litmus test for faculty.” This statement is an outright falsehood and was adopted from an American Association of University Professors statement which has falsely claimed since the introduction of our bill that it would “enforce a kind of diversity that is instead determined by essentially political categories, like the number of Republicans or Democrats on a faculty, or the number of conservatives or liberals.” Our response to this misrepresentation of the Bill by the AAUP can be viewed here.
Far from imposing an ideological litmus test on faculty, the Academic Bill of Rights proposed by our organization explicitly forbids the consideration of political or ideological views in hiring and tenure processes. The portions of the Higher Education Act which reflect our Academic Bill of Rights are chiefly concerned with the rights of students rather than educators and thus do not contain this exact provision—in fact the section of the Higher Education Act inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights is silent on the topic of hiring educators illustrating the lack of research which went into the NEA/AFT response. But these provisions similarly outlaw the use of political standards to judge or grade students, mandating that students not be “excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination or official sanction on the basis of their political or ideological beliefs.”
The body of the release is equally misleading. A special paragraph devoted to the issue states: “A special concern for the two unions is a proposed congressional resolution on what the Republican majority ironically calls the ‘Academic Bill of Rights.’ If passed, the resolution would impose a litmus test on curriculum, teaching and hiring decisions. Several states also are considering state versions of the “Academic Bill of Rights” that would bar faculty from discussing controversial subjects and in other ways bar academic freedom, including legislatures in Minnesota, Ohio, New York and Rhode Island.”
NEA President Kathy Sproles is then quoted as stating, “If Congress tries to create a ‘balance’ of political and religious views and other forms of expression by faculty through this action, they will kill academic freedom.”
The mischaracterizations in these statements are many.
The first charge, that the Bill would “impose a litmus test on curriculum, teaching and hiring decisions,” is clearly contradicted by the text of the Higher Education Act itself which states that students should be presented with “diverse approaches and dissenting sources and viewpoints within the instructional setting” and should not be “subjected to discrimination…on the basis of their political or ideological beliefs.” Nowhere does either the Act or the full Academic Bill of Rights refer to any particular political position or viewpoint, much less mandate that instruction be directed by political aims.
It takes a suspension of rational judgment to conclude that the teaching of diverse scholarly perspectives—which should be an aim in any educational setting—amounts to the imposition of a particular political agenda or “litmus test.” The American Historical Association even emphasizes the importance of teaching diverse perspectives, declaring in its recently-revised Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct that, “Students should be made aware of multiple causes and varying interpretations. Within the bounds of the historical topic being studied, the free expression of legitimate differences of opinion should always be a goal” (emphasis added).
NAS President Sproles’ comment that mandating a “‘balance’ of political and religious views and other forms of expression by faculty” would “kill academic freedom” is misleading of several grounds. Nowhere does the section of the Higher Education Act inspired by our Academic Bill of Rights or the Bill itself contain the word “balance” which implies a 50-50 division of views which might lead to intellectual quotas. The concept touted by the Higher Education Act and the Academic Bill of Rights is not that of “balance” but rather of intellectual diversity. As was revealed above, it is the same concept recognized by the American Historical Association and is already embedded in the Academic Freedom Policies of many public universities across the nation. Can a concept that is already so widely recognized as a key component of academic freedom really be a means to “kill[ing] academic freedom”?
On the final claim, relating not to the Higher Education Act, but rather to the legislation introduced in many states, that it would “bar faculty from discussing controversial subjects,” the AFT and NEA again distort the facts. The clause which can be found in much of the state legislation states: “Faculty and instructors shall not infringe the academic freedom and quality of education of their students by persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.”
As can clearly be seen from the above passage, it is a vast simplification and overstatement to say that these state bills would “bar faculty from discussing controversial subjects.” The language of the legislation makes explicitly clear that only those controversial topics that have “no relation to their subject of study” and serve “no legitimate pedagogical purpose” would be considered out-of-bounds. This policy is in fact a much more lenient standard than that held by the AAUP which states in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure that, “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” Furthermore, many individual universities have also adopted regulations which are also more stringent than our legislative bills including Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University.
As the two higher education unions that by their own claim represent “more than 90 percent of unionized faculty and professional staff employed in the nation’s colleges and universities,” the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have undermined their credibility by releasing this poorly-researched and one-sided propaganda piece as an official statement.