For all the uproar over legislation inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights, very little of it has gone anywhere. There have been hearings -- some of them noisy -- in many states, but not much more this year.
But on Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a resolution creating a special committee that is charged with investigating -- at public colleges in the state -- how faculty members are hired and promoted, whether students are fairly evaluated, and whether students have the right to express their views without fear of being punished for them.
The language in the resolution closely follows that of the Academic Bill of Rights, which has been pushed nationwide by David Horowitz, a former 60s radical who is now a conservative activist.
Horowitz, writing in Front Page, one of his publications, called the Pennsylvania vote "a tremendous victory for academic freedom." He said that opposition from faculty groups "was fierce, and their defeat is that much more bitter as a result."
The fight over the resolution was indeed intense, taking up many hours of debate and procedural maneuvers before the resolution was approved, 108-90, largely along party lines, with Republicans backing the measure and Democrats opposing it. Faculty unions nationally, while saying that they don't object to fairness, oppose the Academic Bill of Rights, which they say will force professors to give equal time to any possible view -- including Holocaust denial and creationism -- and make faculty members vulnerable to sanctions any time they say something controversial.
Faculty leaders also dislike the idea of a legislative committee being authorized to inquire as to why courses were taught in certain ways, why professors were hired, or why students received certain grades. A letter sent to legislators by William Cutler, president of the faculty union at Temple University, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, warned that the special committee could "open the door to the kind of political presence in higher education that we haven't seen in Pennsylvania for 50 years."
Added Cutler: "To be a forum for the exchange of ideas of all kinds, a college or university must be free from the threat of oversight by those with a particular cultural or political agenda. This is not to say that a public institution of higher education should be unaccountable for how it spends precious tax dollars. Far from it. But it is to say that the intellectual climate on college and university campuses will be far less open if students and professors feel that their work is being monitored by those who answer to a particular group or set of constituents."
Rep. Gibson Armstrong, the Republican who sponsored the resolution, said in an interview Wednesday that professors have nothing to worry about. "Those who are concerned about this, I think misunderstand what it's all about," he said. "This is not about squelching their ability to interact with their students. This is not about coming into a classroom and telling them what to tell their kids."
Armstrong also said that the resolution is not a right-wing campaign against liberal professors. He said that although he first got interested in the issue when he heard from a conservative constituent that she had been discriminated against by a liberal professor, he has since heard from liberal students who have faced bias from conservative professors. Both situations offend him, he said.
"I could care less what your ideology is," Armstrong said. "My concern is for diversity of thought, diversity of ideas and that an honest debate take place in an atmosphere that promotes free thinking and the exploration of ideas, rather than indoctrination to a pre-established point of view."
A good professor, Armstrong said, "is going to help his student understand various relevant perspectives and help the student come to his or her own conclusion rather than try to direct them to a pre-established point of view."
Such statements from lawmakers have left many professors worried that they might be held accountable if they, for example, tell students that evolution is a fact, and not merely one of several competing theories. Asked about that issue, Armstrong said, "I'm not a scientist so I would rather not comment on the merits of the theory of evolution. I know that there a several different theories and versions. When you say evolution, that's pretty broad."