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Power Grab at DuPage

November 24, 2008

Periodically, colleges debate such questions as the future of the curriculum, the role of the student newspaper, how outside speakers should be selected, and so forth. At the College of DuPage, a community college outside of Chicago, the board recently proposed major overhauls on all these issues with a common theme -- power that currently rests elsewhere would be moved to the trustees.

Not only did the board set out to change the power structure at the college, but it moved to adopt as official college policy a version of David Horowitz's controversial "Academic Bill of Rights."

Last week, faculty members and students -- the latter with tape over their mouths to symbolize what they say the trustees are doing to their freedoms -- flocked to a board meeting to protest the plans that appear to be dividing the college. Not only do the critics say that academic freedom is in danger, but they charge that the board's policies in some instances would violate state law.

Both faculty members and students say that the proposed overhaul of most college rules adds to uncertainty about the college and its leadership. The past two presidents of the college have been ousted with minimal explanation (a new president has just been appointed). And the chair of the board of the college this year sued three former board members, charging them with defamation in their allegations of sexual harassment against him -- charges he denies.

As unusual as it is to have a board member sue ex-trustees and to see back-to-back presidencies ending mysteriously, the current debate seems to be upsetting more people at DuPage because it speaks directly to what goes on in the classrooms and on campus every day. "This is really an attempt by the board to gain complete control over everything," said Glenn Hansen, a professor of photography who is president of the College of DuPage Faculty Association, a unit of the National Education Association.

Trustees could not be reached or did not respond for comment about this article. But Kory Atkinson, one of the trustees who wrote the controversial plans, told The Naperville Sun that there was "a lot of unjustified paranoia and suspicion regarding the board and its policies"; that "there's not much to be concerned about" and that "90 percent of the proposed manual is noncontroversial."

Many of the 230 planned changes in policy are indeed noncontroversial. But amid all the routine updates are changes that stunned faculty members. Indeed, DuPage is probably not the only college where professors would object if what was billed as a routine updating of board rules ended up including the Academic Bill of Rights.

That document, framed as a measure to protect academic freedom, is widely viewed by professors as an attack on their autonomy because of its call for faculty members to expose students to a wide variety of views on most topics and its implication that there is a widespread problem of faculty members punishing job candidates or students whose political views differ from their own. Faculty groups say that the measure would lead to professors constantly looking over their shoulders, make it impossible for them to express strong views, and force them to include conservative interpretations of everything or face criticism for not doing so.

In the board's list of policy changes, the section that mirrors the Academic Bill of Rights is not labeled as such; it is simply called "Educational Philosophy," and faculty members say that they were not told that the board wanted to include this measure. But the section (Section 25-135 if you follow this link and go toward the bottom) largely mirrors the language drafted by Horowitz.

A letter to the board from the faculty association notes that the trustees have never (in public) debated the Academic Bill of Rights or expressed concerns to professors about the issues it claims to address, and questions why the measure was "surreptitiously" included in the update of board rules. The letter notes that the college has a policy in place that allows students to file complaints if they believe a professor is treating them unfairly and that no complaints are known to have been filed raising concerns about political or other viewpoint discrimination.

Referring to the Academic Bill of Rights by its acronym, the letter says: "ABOR supporters apparently hope that the bill will give elected officials the power to dictate, for example, whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution in college biology. Let us be clear: The [College of DuPage] faculty supports teaching conflicting views on a subject where those views are supported by sufficient evidence. But it is the responsibility of college professors, who are trained experts in their fields, to evaluate that evidence. It’s not the job of politicians.... Given the controversial nature of ABOR and its lack of acceptance in Illinois, it’s especially troubling that the Board would try to use a revision in Board policies to impose it ... without due debate or consideration."

Adding to the concerns of professors are statements in the proposed revisions that give the board exclusive power over the curriculum, the initial pay of individual faculty members, and all educational programs. While there are some references to the board seeking input of faculty members, statement after statement says that the board has full power. Hansen, in an interview, said that professors understood that the board has ultimate authority, but that the phrasing of many proposed changes undercuts the norms of shared governance, where the faculty role in educational matters is much more than an opportunity to provide an opinion. The board appears to be moving beyond the traditional role for setting broad policy, he said, when it demands approval of pay for every faculty member.

The letter from faculty leaders to the board also notes that shared governance is an idea embraced not only by professors but by the college's accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Still other provisions attracted the most anger from students, who say that the board appears to want to limit their exposure to ideas and their ability to express them. One proposed rule gives the board the right to approve or reject all proposed outside speakers, and the right to control the way speaker events are planned.

Another proposed rule change would put control of the content of the student newspaper -- currently students have autonomy, but work with an adviser -- directly under the college's president. It is hard to believe it is a coincidence, Hansen said, that this provision should appear after board members have complained that the student newspaper, The Courier, is sometimes critical of trustees.

The Courier asked for advice from the Student Press Law Center, and that organization wrote back that the board would be foolish to adopt the proposed policy change because doing so would probably violate Illinois law and freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Illinois has a strong statute protecting the rights of college newspapers not to be subject to direct control by administrations, noted the letter from Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the center.

LoMonte, noting that the proposed new rule directly followed comments from board members about critical coverage, said that the newspaper would have little legal difficulty showing that it was being punished for exercising its free speech -- and that such punishment would likely be found to violate the First Amendment.

Following the meeting with faculty members speaking out and students taping their mouths shut, board members said that they would be happy to talk more before adopting all the rules changes. But they also insisted that there was nothing wrong with what they were proposing.

 

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