Academic bill advances

The measure would be voted on as part of a bill to renew the Higher Education Act.

by Cati Vanden Breul

Students who feel unfairly graded by professors for their political or religious beliefs might find Congress on their side in the future.

In a bill passed by a House committee last month, members called on colleges to make sure students were graded solely on their knowledge instead of their political leanings.

The bill said colleges should allocate funds for speakers and student activities in a way that encourages “intellectual pluralism” and promotes diverse viewpoints. It also directed professors to offer dissenting viewpoints in their classrooms.

The idea of academic freedom has been gaining momentum the last few years as state legislatures around the country, including Minnesota’s, have considered measures that would create an Academic Bill of Rights that colleges would be required to follow.

But the language included in the congressional bill is nonbinding and not tied to funding in any way, said Alexa Marrero, press secretary for the committee.

“It is the sense of Congress that students should not be discriminated against,” Marrero said. “But, in terms of enforcement, it’s more a question of what individual campuses and higher education organizations will do to enact the policies.”

The statement is meant to draw attention to the issue and encourage colleges to take action and develop policies to protect freedom of expression on campuses, Marrero said.

But Jan Morse, director of the University’s Student Dispute Resolution Center, said that including this type of language in a higher-education bill could be counterproductive.

Universities give professors the right to design and set the course for their classes, Morse said. Students should not be able to hijack the discussion to get their views across, she said.

“Professors set the terms of discussion; it’s not a forum for people to express views they have when they are unrelated to the subject matter,” Morse said.

But when students are asked for their opinions, they should not be penalized for expressing them, she said.

Sara Dogan, national campus director for Students for Academic Freedom, said colleges should adopt an Academic Bill of Rights that would clearly establish student freedoms and be easily accessible in a handbook or online.

“Congress recognizes the importance of protecting students’ rights,” Dogan said. “Professors should not use the classroom as a way to influence students with their viewpoints.”

But Jeremy Nienow, president of the Twin Cities American Association of University Professors Graduate and Professional Student Caucus, said professors could lose their rights if they were instructed as to what they could discuss and include in their lectures.

“The Academic Bill of Rights curtails the rights of faculty, at any level, to decide the best practice for teaching their students,” Nienow said.

As an anthropology teaching assistant at the University, he said he would be shocked to learn that any of his fellow teaching assistants graded students based on their political or religious beliefs.

Brittny McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said putting the focus on an Academic Bill of Rights steals attention away from the most important issues students face.

“It clouds the real issue, which is college affordability,” McCarthy said. When colleges were created, they were founded expressly for the purpose of encouraging debate and free speech, so the language in the bill is merely restating what is already established, she said.

The measure will be voted on as part of a larger bill to renew the Higher Education Act.