Arguments against the Academic Bill of Rights
By Dr. George Wolfe; Coordinator of Outreach Programs
Center for Peace and Conflict Studies
Ball State University
This past November, the AAUP, American Federation of Teachers and other organizations that lobby in support of higher education, won a significant victory in their efforts to protect academic freedom in American universities. The legislative committee in Pennsylvania charged with investigating possible abuses of academic freedom as publicized by David Horowitz in his book The Professors, 101 of the Most Dangerous Academics in America, voted unanimously to reject the Academic Bill of Rights. The committee’s report stated it found no evidence that abuses of academic freedom were prevalent at Pennsylvania universities. This political defeat was especially bitter for Mr. Horowitz and his conservative organization, Students for Academic Freedom, given that the majority of the legislators on the committee were Republicans.
While this victory is indeed significant for higher education, it would be a mistake to assume that the Horowitz agenda is no longer a threat or that the best response now to David Horowitz is to ignore him. One of Mr. Horowitz’s arguments in support of legislation is that higher education is not willing to hold itself accountable when criticized or challenged by stakeholders outside the “Ivory Tower.” To ignore him is to validate this argument. It is therefore necessary that we continue to respond Mr. Horowitz, pointing out to legislators his false, misleading, and often absurd accusations against university faculty. Furthermore, it is still important to address his Academic Bill of Rights directly, revealing its subtle educational fallacies and political trappings. What follows are four of the strongest arguments against his proposed legislation.
Legislative intervention and enforcement of the Academic Bill of Rights could potentially burden house and senate investigative committees in litigation at great expense to taxpayers. If a student makes a complaint of political bias in the classroom, and if the university, after investigating, decides in favor of the faculty member, further investigation by a legislative committee could result in students, as well as faculty, being called to testify before the legislative committee to defend the accused faculty member. In addition, a professor’s defense could, in some cases, necessitate the release of a student’s class attendance and academic performance records which most universities protect through policies of confidentiality.
To protect themselves from false accusations, professors may consider it necessary to make audio recordings of their classes. Reviewing evidence in this recorded format could take hours, which would be time better spent by legislators on pressing social problems.
Students may incorrectly perceive course subject matter that happens to be controversial as politically biased. A biology teacher who includes a unit on global warming, or a science instructor teaching a lesson that includes the environmental impact of war, may be accused of promoting a political agenda despite the professor’s best intentions to provide a balanced classroom experience. This may cause faculty to avoid presenting important controversial issues relevant to current events.
Legislative restrictions on academic freedom would most certainly inhibit the application of creative teaching approaches, particularly those approaches where the professor intentionally takes a controversial stance in an effort to jolt students out of a state of apathy or complacency.
In conclusion, the strategy of ignoring the Horowitz agenda could be detrimental to efforts to protect academic freedom. Rather, faculty should present arguments against the Academic Bill of Rights when appropriate opportunities arise. The turnover in personnel that occurs every two years in state legislatures provides David Horowitz with opportunities to re-define himself as he continually tries to deceive the public and our legislators into believing he is a reasonable conservative thinker. We therefore must stay vigilant in our efforts to educate the public and call upon our state and national representatives and senators to reject legislation that incorporates language taken from the Academic Bill of Rights.