University needs Academic Bill of Rights

At long last, a statement in support of intellectual diversity from the academic community.

Over the last two years, in my capacity as the national campus director of Students for Academic Freedom, I have worked with students across the nation to combat the partisan abuse of the classroom and to encourage universities to adopt an Academic Bill of Rights. This campaign is a nonpartisan effort to advance fairness, civility and greater intellectual diversity in our nation’s institutions of higher learning and it ought to have immediately gained the support of everyone interested in the health and integrity of higher education in the United States.

Twenty-four months into our academic freedom campaign, the educational establishment appears to have finally come around to our point of view. In a statement released Thursday, the American Council on Education, an organization representing more than 1,600 college and university presidents and more than 200 related associations, issued a statement endorsing the key principles of our bill (though it notably failed to refer it by name). Twenty-two additional organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, which has mounted an extensive effort to counter our academic freedom campaign, signed on to the statement.

Among the principles recognized by the American Council on Education was the idea that “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education” and “neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions.” The statement even endorsed one of the most frequently-criticized measures recommended by our campaign: that students and faculty members whose academic freedom has been violated must have access to redress through official and well-publicized grievance procedures on campus.

The academic establishment’s wholesale endorsement of these key principles of our academic freedom initiative is nothing short of revolutionary, considering the epithets hurled at our campaign during the last 24 months. We have been called everything from McCarthyists, to Nazis, to Maoists, to members of Orwell’s thought police.

The American Association of University Professors called our Academic Bill of Rights “a grave threat to academic freedom” and University of Minnesota political science professor and chairman of the University’s Task Force on Academic Freedom Raymond Duvall told The Minnesota Daily that “what they’re trying to do is to make the University into a place that is less comfortable with liberal viewpoints.” This, despite the fact that our Academic Bill of Rights was directly inspired by the nearly 100-year-old academic freedom philosophy of the American Association of University Professors.

In many of the states in which legislators have introduced versions of the Academic Bill of Rights, the sponsors of these bills have faced harsh personal criticism and attacks. Michelle Bachman, the sponsor of our bill in Minnesota, is no exception. A column by Laura Billings in the Pioneer Press called it “a bill intent on dumbing down our institutions of higher learning” and this paper printed an editorial calling it “just another example of the government trying to nose in on the practices of higher education.”

The American Council on Education statement is an important breakthrough in our attempts to highlight the critical problems of political abuse and exclusion in the academy. We have heard from hundreds of students across the nation who have been attacked and berated in class for holding political views at odds with their professors. One law professor at the University of Colorado told a student that “The ‘R’ in ‘Republican’ stands for ‘Racist’ ” and called a Republican student a “Nazi” when he was so bold as to object.

By stepping forward to address these issues, the American Council on Education, along with the 22 organizations who co-signed their statement, have brought the protection of students’ academic freedom – long an issue advocated for chiefly by external organizations – to the forefront of the debate within the academy. While this is an important first step, it is far from satisfactory. The true test of intent will come during the ensuing months, as we watch to see whether the American Council on Education’s members will take up the challenge set for them and implement the principles endorsed by the American Council on Education on their own campuses.

Sara Dogan is the national campus director for Students for Academic Freedom. Please send comments to [email protected]