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Academic Freedom Wars

March 25, 2005

Academic freedom is getting more public attention that it has in many years. This week, legislation advanced in Florida to create an "Academic Bill of Rights" that many professors find deeply offensive. And the sponsor's statements about professors left many of them furious. Meanwhile, in New York City, Columbia University's president gave a talk outlining the history of academic freedom -- and suggesting that faculty members need to consider the appropriateness of pushing some views past a certain point in the classroom.

Fighting in Florida

Florida is the latest state to see political fighting -- some of it nasty -- over the Academic Bill of Rights. The legislation was created by David Horowitz, the one-time campus radical whose politics have shifted rightward and who argues that liberal professors use their classrooms to indoctrinate students. The legislation requires faculty members to expose their students to a wide variety of viewpoints -- a requirement that professors say will leave them vulnerable to complaints every time they express a strong opinion.

A House of Representatives committee approved the legislation Wednesday, and the sponsor of the bill -- an ally of Florida's governor, Jeb Bush -- reinforced the fears of many professors with his rhetoric, much of which he repeated in an interview on Thursday.

Rep. Dennis K. Baxley said his own undergraduate education at Florida State University -- in the 1970s -- illustrated the failings of higher education: The problem was that an anthropology professor "did a tirade" in his course that evolution was correct and that creationism was not. Baxley said that students should not "get blasted" as he did for not believing in evolution.

Baxley said that faculties have too many "leftist totalitarian niches" and that lawmakers want to do something about the fact that "we've allowed universities to become an extreme leftist stronghold."

Many state legislatures have lawmakers who share Baxley's views, but most states have just held hearings on the legislation. The movement in Florida -- where after other committee reviews, the House is considered likely to pass the bill -- upsets many academics. (Governor Bush has not taken a public stand, and the Senate is considered more skeptical.)

Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said that the legislation "looks like a nice shiny apple with all its talk about academic freedom, but there are razors in that apple."

Auxter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida, said that the bill's purpose is to make every faculty member afraid of offending conservative students. "This is about intimidating professors," he said, adding that it was "ridiculous" for Baxley to suggest that it was wrong for a professor to tell his students that evolution is in fact true.

"If he had a bad experience 30 years ago, get over it," Auxter said.

Auxter added that he fears the impact of the legislation on the progress Florida's colleges have made in recruiting top scholars. "We've been quite successful in bringing nationally known professors into the state," he said. "If we accept this bill, we will have killed all the recruiting efforts of the last 20 years."

History in New York City

Meanwhile in New York City Wednesday night, Lee Bollinger, Columbia's president, gave a talk about academic freedom. Bollinger's address -- before the Association of the Bar of the City of New York -- came amid a debate at his university over whether professors of Middle Eastern studies have intimidated supporters of Israel. Critics of the professors say that they limit the rights of their students, while the professors' defenders say that the critics refuse to accept professors who are critical of Israel. A Columbia panel is currently reviewing the situation.

In his talk, Bollinger reviewed the current debates over Horowitz's bill and Ward Churchill and other controversial professors. But after examining the history of academic freedom, he turned to the question of what faculty members should do (or not do) in terms of pushing their views in the classroom.

"In the classroom, especially, where we perhaps meet our highest calling, the professor knows the need to resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience, to play favorites with the like-minded and silence the others. To act otherwise is to be intellectually self-indulgent," Bollinger said.

"This responsibility belongs to every member of every faculty, but it poses special challenges on those of us who teach subjects of great political controversy. Given the deep emotions that people -- students and professors both -- bring to these highly charged discussions, faculty must show an extraordinary sensitivity to unlocking the fears and the emotional barriers that can cause a discussion to turn needlessly painful and substantively partial." At the same time, however, Bollinger said that it would be a "grave mistake" for professors to avoid controversial subjects.

While Bollinger repeatedly defended the right of professors to hold unpopular views, he also spoke of the duty of faculties to draw lines around conduct that isn't appropriate.

"We should not elevate our autonomy as individual faculty above every other value," he said. "We should not accept the argument that our professional norms cannot be defined and therefore transgressions must be accepted without consequences. We, as faculty, properly have enormous autonomy in the conduct of our teaching and our scholarship. Yet, it will not do simply to say that the professional standards within which that autonomy exists are too vague for any enforcement at all."

When there are problems, he said, it must be the colleges, not government officials, who deal with them.

"As we have witnessed throughout recent history, the outside world will sometimes find the academy so dangerous and threatening that efforts will naturally arise to make decisions for us about whom we engage and what we teach," Bollinger said. "This must not be allowed to happen. We must understand, just as we have come to with freedom of speech generally, that the qualities of mind we need in a democracy -- especially in times of crisis -- are precisely what the extraordinary openness of the academy is designed to help achieve -- and what will necessarily seem dangerous and threatening when our intellectual instincts press us, to be single minded or, to put it another way, of one mind. In a democracy, that's what we must be wary of."

Leaders of Columbia's Senate were unavailable to comment on the speech Thursday. But one of Columbia's toughest critics had praise for it. Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, which has organized the criticism of Columbia's professors of Middle Eastern studies, said Bollinger's comments about professors "were exactly what he should say" about professors in the classroom.

"I think he's right to chide those who would use the podium in an ideological way," he said.

 

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