Ohio Senate Bill 24, which has been sponsored by Senator Mumper and is now before this Committee, and which is based on my Academic Bill of Rights, is not about Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, left and right. It is about what is appropriate to a higher education, and in particular what is an appropriate discourse in the classrooms of an institution of higher learning.
All higher education institutions in this country embrace principles of academic freedom that were first laid down in 1915 in the famous General Report of the American Association of University Professors, titled “The Principles of Tenure and Academic Freedom.” The Report admonishes faculty to avoid “taking unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity to fairly examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own.”
In other words, an education -- as distinct from an indoctrination -- makes students aware of a spectrum of scholarly views on matters of controversy and opinion, and does not make particular answers to such controversial matters the goal of the instruction. This is sound doctrine and common sense, and in one form or another it is recognized in the academic freedom guidelines of all accredited institutions of higher learning in the United States.
Unfortunately, it is a principle increasingly honored in the breach and not in the observance in American universities today. All too frequently, professors behave as political advocates in the classroom, express opinions in a partisan manner on controversial issues irrelevant to the academic subject, and even grade students in a manner designed to enforce their conformity to professorial prejudices. (Numerous instances of these abuses are available on the websites www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org and www.noindoctrination.org)
Why this abuse of the academic classroom has occurred in the last academic generation is a matter for historians. Why it has not been remedied by existing institutional supports for academic freedom is the business of Senate Bill 24 and the Academic Bill of Rights.
To anticipate, it is the view of the authors of this legislation that the academic freedom protections to prevent indoctrination in the classroom are generally buried in “faculty handbooks,” as faculty “responsibilities,” never codified as a student right. Therefore when they are neglected there is no remedy for students who are victims of professorial abuse. Nor does there exist any grievance machinery that specifically recognizes this academic freedom right or that provides a policy for redress. The purpose of Senate Bill 24 and legislation in other states based on the Academic Bill of Rights is to rectify this omission.
It is not an education when a mid-term examination contains a required essay on the topic, “Explain Why President Bush Is A War Criminal,” as did a criminology exam at the University of Northern Colorado in 2003. It is not an education when a professor of property law harangues his class on why all Republicans are racist as happened at the Colorado University Law School in 2004. It is not an education when a widely-used required “Peace Studies” textbook, described by the professor as a “masterpiece,” explains that the Soviet Union was a force for peace in the Cold War and the United States was not, that “revolutionary violence” is the only justifiable violence, and that the United States is the greatest terrorist state – and does so without making students aware that there are other interpretations of this history and other views that should be considered on these matters. This extremist text, Peace and Conflict Studies, written by two university professors who explain in their preface that they are partisans of the political left is the required “academic” textbook for students in the Peace Studies course at Ohio State University (Marion).
At Foothills College in California, a pro-life professor compared women who have abortions to the deranged mother Andrea Yates who drowned her six children. The professor then gave D’s and F’s to students who expressed opinions in favor of abortion. Abortion is a matter that is both profoundly controversial and also emotional, and involves the deepest and most personal values. It is also a matter of opinion. It is not the task of a professor to provide his students with politically correct opinions.
It is the task of professors – whether they are politically left or politically conservative -- to teach students how to think and not what to think about matters that are controversial. An education should make students aware of the range of scholarly views on a subject, teach students how to marshal evidence in behalf of a point of view, and instruct them how to make a logical case for their conclusions. An education is not about providing students with the correct conclusions on controversial matters.
We live in democracy that is based on the proposition that there is no correct conclusion available to ordinary mortals, that no one – not even professors – are in possession of absolute truth. If there were only one correct conclusion to all controversial issues there be no need for a multi-party democracy, since the only party necessary would be the one with the truth. No such party exists. No such professor exists. Therefore, Ohio Senate Bill 24 states that “students [shall] have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study;” and further that:“Students shall be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study and shall not be discriminated against on the basis of their political, ideological, or religious beliefs. Faculty and instructors shall not use their courses or their positions for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination.”
Three principal objections have been made to the Senate Bill 24, all of them groundless. The first is that the Bill would impose “political standards” on higher education. This is an invention of opponents of the Bill, whose text could not be clearer on this matter: “students [shall] have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study.” In other words, the standards “imposed” by the Bill are scholarly not political.
The second objection is that the Bill “limits free speech” and in particular would impose limits on the ability of professors to express themselves freely in the classroom. A typical “news” headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, reporting Senator Mumper’s legislation, transforms a bill expressly designed to promote academic freedom into its opposite: “Legislator Wants Law To Restrict Professors.”
This false charge originates with the American Association of University Professors, which long ago abandoned its commitment to academic freedom where students are concerned. The AAUP was entirely absent from the battle against speech codes in the 1990s – the most dramatic infringement of free speech rights on college campuses since the McCarthy era. I am acutely conscious of this dereliction because my Individual Rights Foundations was actively engaged in those battles.
The AAUP has particularly singled out the following clause in the Senate Bill for disapproval: “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.” According to the AAUP and opponents of the Bill generally, this stipulation is an infringement of the free speech rights of professors.
Presumably it would be perfectly appropriate as far as the AAUP and these opponents of the Bill are concerned if a professor of property law were to devote an entire class to explaining why Americans deserved to die on 9/11, or a professor of Women’s Studies devoted an entire class to discussing how the terrible results of the 2004 presidential election could be countered or a Metallurgy professor confronted students in a class on “Organic Materials” with the question of whether it was right for the Governor of California to leave his state to campaign for George Bush in Ohio, or whether a Spanish language professor used her class time to tell her students “I wish George Bush were dead.” All these incidents happened at quality American universities (Colorado, Stanford, and Ripon) within the last school year.
In fact, the issue here is not the free speech rights of professors as private citizens, but what is appropriate to a classroom, and in particular what form of discourse constitutes indoctrination as distinct from education. We don’t go to our doctors’ offices expecting to get a lecture on politics. That is because doctors are professionals whose responsibility is to minister to all their patients regardless of their patients’ political beliefs. Introducing passionately divisive matters into a medical consultation can injure the trust between doctors and their patients, which is essential to the healing misson. Why is the profession of education any different? When students go to their professors’ offices, for example, they go for advice and help. When professors plaster their office doors with partisan cartoons that mock the deeply held beliefs of students on matters like abortion and party affiliation – which they regularly do – this creates a wall between faculty and students, which is injurious to the counseling process. How can a professor teach a student whom he regards as a partisan adversary? The answer is he cannot.
Can professors, under this guideline, discuss controversial matters in class? Of course they can. But their purpose must be educational and not political. They can present students with the opposing views that define a controversy, show them how to marshal evidence for one view or the other and teach them how to construct a case in behalf of their own viewpoint. What they must not do is jump into the controversy on one side, wielding all the authority of their greater experience and superior knowledge, backed by their grading power. They are not in the classroom to recruit students to their political or religious agendas. They are there to teach them. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand the difference. A classroom is not – or should not be – a political soap box.
The truly insurmountable problem for opponents of this injunction is that the principle of restricting professorial speech in the classroom to what is professionally appropriate is not only a long-standing principle of academic freedom, it is a principle already embraced (if not practiced) by most universities. The Faculty Handbook of Ohio State University, for example, instructs professors as follows: “Academic freedom carries with it correlative academic responsibilities. The principal elements include the responsibility of teachers to “…(5) Refrain from persistently introducing matters that have no bearing on the subject matter of the course;…(7) Differentiate carefully between official activities as teachers and personal activities as citizens, and to act accordingly.”
Is it feasible for professors to keep the political opinions and prejudices they hold as citizens out of the classroom? I attended school for 19 years from kindergarten to the graduate level, where I received my M.A. 43 years ago. In all that time I do not remember a single teacher or a single professor on single occasion in any classroom reveal or express their political beliefs. If my teachers could be that professional, so can this generation of educators.
The principle of professional restraint in the classroom could not be stated more clearly than in the Ohio State University handbook and it is expressed in the very wording of Senate Bill 24 to which apparently the same administrators who are responsible for the Faculty Handbook and the same professors who are supposed to be guided by it now strenuously object. Apparently, the principle of academic freedom is acceptable when it is only a faculty responsibility that can be disregarded. When it is proposed as a student right that might be enforced, it becomes objectionable.
There is a reason that the Academic Bill of Rights and the Faculty Handbook have nearly identical wording. Both are derived from the long-standing Academic Freedom guidelines of the American Association of University Professors, which the present leaders of the AAUP have turned their backs on now seek to repudiate: Thus, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the AAUP states: “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.”
The real problem has now been revealed, and the third of the three objections to the bill – the complaint that this would be a legislative interference in academic affairs – is answered: it wouldn’t be an interference because the university itself has already adopted the principles of this Bill; the problem is that they will not enforce them.
The reasons for enacting Senate Bill 24 are that too many faculty members at our universities no longer observe their responsibility to teach and not to indoctrinate students; that university administrations no longer enforce their faculty guidelines on academic freedom; and that the existing guidelines are not codified as student rights; as result students currently have no way to redress their grievances. In this situation legislatures have a fiduciary responsibility – as the elected representatives of the taxpayers who fund these institutions -- to step in and provide a remedy. If they do not, the future of our universities is bleak.