Members of the American Historical Association voted Saturday to condemn the Academic Bill of Rights as an attack on academic freedom. The unanimous vote reflected widespread anger in the association, and among academics generally, about the Academic Bill of Rights, which has become a conservative cause in many state legislatures and on many campuses.
But the vote followed another one in which the association rejected a proposal to replace the resolution condemning the Academic Bill of Rights with one that also criticized campus speech codes.
Proponents of the broader resolution said that the historians would have more credibility attacking the Academic Bill of Rights (which many professors across ideological lines feel could limit their freedom of expression, but which has especially angered liberals) if they also came out against campus speech codes, which many professors also feel infringe on academic freedom, but which have especially angered conservatives and libertarians.
All of the historians who participated in the discussion -- which took place at the AHA's annual meeting, in Philadelphia -- said that they opposed speech codes. But the majority voted with those who said that speech codes and the Academic Bill of Rights were two separate issues, and that the focus right now should be opposing the Academic Bill of Rights.
The Academic Bill of Rights is a short statement -- much of it unobjectionable to just about any academic -- with calls for higher education to seek "new knowledge through scholarship" and to help students become "creative individuals and productive citizens." It also calls for students to be graded and for professors to be hired on the basis of academic skills, not politics.
While almost all academics support those views as well, many say that David Horowitz, the conservative activist who created the document, wants to force colleges to hire more conservatives. Particularly controversial is the document's call for professors to share "other viewpoints" with their classes, which many scholars see as an invitation to Holocaust deniers or creationists to demand equal time in classes that cover the Holocaust or evolution.
The resolution passed by the AHA says that the Academic Bill of Rights would "violate academic freedom and undermine professional standards by imposing political criteria in areas of educational policy that faculty members normally and rightly control."
On Friday, the board of the Association of American Colleges and Universities released a statement that it had passed, criticizing the Academic Bill of Rights for similar reasons cited by the historians and other groups, but also outlining ways to think about intellectual diversity.
At the history meeting, debate over the Academic Bill of Rights itself was fairly simple. Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, called the Academic Bill of Rights a "cleverly written document" that was designed to pressure faculty members to hire more conservatives and to avoid topics and views that offend conservatives. "We should not seek to protect students from hearing uncomfortable views," she said.
The only debate was whether to expand the resolution to also condemn campus speech codes. David Beito, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and one of three sponsors of the alternate approach, said that condemning the Academic Bill of Rights without also questioning speech codes would be "handing David Horowitz a victory on a silver platter" because he would be able to call historians hypocrites.
Jonathan Rose, a professor of history at Drew University, in New Jersey, said that voting to condemn only the Academic Bill of Rights would send a message that "we only care about academic freedom for ourselves and our friends." Following such a vote, he predicted, "we will be held up to ridicule and we will deserve it."
Proponents of keeping the original language said that the Horowitz movement posed far more danger than speech codes. Sandi Cooper, a professor of history at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and College of Staten Island, said courts have thrown out speech codes so criticizing them is "beating a dead horse" while the Academic Bill of Rights is "a very serious threat."
William Cutler, president of the American Federation of Teachers chapter at Temple University, noted that in his state of Pennsylvania, Horowitz won a victory with the creation of a special legislative committee to investigate colleges and universities -- a panel that resumes its deliberations this week. Adding speech codes to the resolution, he said, would take away from the "primary issue," which is the need to defend faculty members under attack by Horowitz and his legislative allies.
In the end, that argument won over most of the historians present. After their amendment was defeated, however, backers of the expanded version -- as they had pledged to do during the debate -- backed the original resolution.
The historians also passed one other resolution: calling for more public debate on the way the United states is treating foreign prisoners and rejecting "the use of torture" by the government. Both resolutions were then formally approved on Sunday by the AHA Council.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities statement is in some ways similar to the one approved by the historians. The Academic Bill of Rights, the statement said, "inappropriately invites political oversight of scholarly and educational work."
The statement goes on to question whether the Academic Bill of Rights creates a false impression that good education is primarily about sharing a range of views on issues. "Teaching the debates is important, but by no means sufficient," the statement said. "It is also essential that faculty help students learn to engage differences of opinion, evaluate evidence, and form their own grounded judgments about the relative value of competing perspectives.”
Carol Geary Schneider, president of the association, faulted Horowitz for implying that the political makeup of college faculties is a pressing issue, compared to so many others. "Focusing on the balance of political opinions among faculty members draws attention away from the more important educational task of preparing students," Schneider said. "We must ensure that far more college students develop the analytic capacities and sense of social responsibility fostered by a liberal education."
Not surprisingly, Horowitz, in an e-mail interview, took issue with both academic groups that condemned him in recent days.
Horowitz said that the AHA's refusal to condemn speech codes "shows the hypocrisy of the organization's claims to principle." He also said that the AHA resolution was incorrect in stating that his proposals would give the government power over curriculums and courses or impose "political criteria" in educational policy. He said that he would give $10,000 to the first member of the AHA who can show that the Academic Bill of Rights would have this impact.
"The AHA resolution is a pathetic display of ideological prejudice on the part of the small minority of apparently hysterical academics who attended the AHA business meeting," he said.
Of the AACU resolution, Horowitz said that it was inaccurate in saying that his proposal would require "balance" on faculties or in the curriculum. "That the academic left has to invent canards like this to oppose the Academic Bill of Rights just shows what a desperate state they are in."