Members of the College Republicans group at Santa Rosa Junior College had had enough. They were fed up, they said, with talking among themselves about various professors who, by expressing unvarnished liberal views as fact, made the students feel uncomfortable expressing their opposing views in class.
"What are you supposed to think when your teacher stands in front of the class and talks about "what idiots all the people are who voted in the current administration?" says Molly McPherson, a second-year politics major and president of the Republican club. "That kind of thing doesn't lead to the exploration of ideas, and it doesn't make you think that your views are welcome or would be worth an A grade."
So when one of the students came across language in California's Education Code prohibiting instructors from teaching communism "with the intent to indoctrinate or to inculcate" students with that doctrine, the students got an idea.
"Why inculcate us with any political ideology? Do I pay them to teach me what to think?" McPherson says. "I don't think so. I want them to teach me how to think and the facts to think with. They can teach whatever they want, but I as student have a right to hear both sides of an issue."
To try to make their point, the students put the language from the education code on a flyer and affixed a red star to the top, signing it from "Anonymous Students." A week ago Friday, they taped the flyers to the office doors of about 10 professors about whom McPherson says students had complained about imposing their political views in the classroom.
The fallout was swift and powerful. The professors who received the flyers objected that they were being personally attacked and threatened by the reference to the McCarthy-era remnant of the state code, which aimed to prevent the teaching of Communism aimed at "undermining patriotism for, and the belief in, the government of the United States and of this state."
At a news conference hastily arranged by some of the professors, McPherson and another member of the College Republicans showed up to acknowledge having posted the flyers. On Monday, Santa Rosa administrators circulated an e-mail that defended academic freedom but also said professors were responsible for "acknowledging the existence of, and showing respect for, opposing opinions" and "making clear what is personal opinion and what is considered general knowledge." McPherson and other students responsible for the postings faced a barrage of criticism at a raucous meeting of the college's Academic Senate on Wednesday.
In an interview, McPherson acknowledged that her use of the red stars and the "anonymous" nature of the document were "over the top," and that she underestimated the extent to which the faculty members, many of whom were "in the McCarthy generation," would be "afraid that they would come under criticism for their views."
Rather than implying a threat, she says, "the goal was to promote a discussion. We weren't trying to say they were communists. We were trying to get them to think about what this code says about" the climate in their classrooms.
But professors were not quick to forgive the students' use of McCarthy-era imagery. "Unnamed students and unspecified complaints -- what does this sound like to you?" says Marco Giordano, an English professor who was not on the receiving end of a red star. "This was an attack and an innuendo and a slander on them, not the opening of a discussion. If you want to open a dialogue, you go to the professor's office, or the department chairman or the dean. Not one of these professors has a student complaint standing against them." (Administrators at the college could not be reached over the weekend to confirm that fact or to comment generally on the controversy.)
Giordano says that when he teaches, he provides facts and inferences of the facts in the classroom, and keeps his political opinions to himself. But academic freedom gives his colleagues the right to do that if they want, he says.
"It isn't a question of just balancing ideas in the classroom," he says. Academic freedom applies institution-wide. Consider the books in our library. We should have one by the monarchist and one by the Communist, but the monarchist doesn't have to give equal time to the Communist, and vice versa. I don't believe students should feel intimidated out of expressing their political opinions, but neither should professors."
McPherson says she hopes the faculty will agree to an open forum to discuss these issues in the coming weeks.
It also seems clear, though, that the discussion will move beyond the campus. She said she plans to try to build student support for legislation introduced in the California legislature -- modeled on David Horowitz's Student Bill of Rights -- that would mandate, among other things, that colleges ensure that their faculty members present all viewpoints in their courses.