Who Won the Battle of Pennsylvania?

As David Horowitz's prized legislative panel finishes work, he claims victory, but many academics say it debunked his claims.
November 16, 2006

For all the fears about David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights, the proposal ended up going nowhere in state legislatures last year. But in Pennsylvania, the House of Representatives voted to create a special legislative committee to investigate the state of academic freedom and whether students who hold unpopular views need more protection. The special committee held hearings -- amid charges and countercharges from Horowitz, his allies, college presidents, faculty groups and others.

With the committee wrapping up its work, the battle has shifted to the question of what the committee accomplished and what its work means. Horowitz is so pleased with the committee's work that he said in an interview Wednesday that he sees it as a model for what he will do in the next year. He no longer plans to get legislatures to adopt his "Bill of Rights," which calls for a diversity of views in courses and in hiring -- a principle that many professors say sounds innocuous but could lead to their being forced to adopt ideological quotas or to include, for example, creationism and Holocaust denial in courses on evolution or anti-Semitism.

"I found in Pennsylvania a better way to go than [legislative] resolutions," he said. His next move will be to work in two or three additional states to set up committees like the one in Pennsylvania to hold hearings and to issue reports on academic freedom. He said he already has the support of one state's governor and legislative leaders, although he declined to name the state. "In any red state controlled by Republicans, I can get hearings," he said. He's keeping his plans secret for now because "if I tell you, all that will do is mobilize the AFT and AAUP."

Where Horowitz sees victory, however, others see a rather dramatic defeat for his movement and its ideas. The final report of the committee is still being negotiated between Republican and Democratic members of the panel. But consensus already exists that problems with students being punished for political views are rare and that no legislation is needed. From the start of Horowitz's movement, academic leaders have been saying just that.

"This committee spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to find some shred of evidence of a real problem and they couldn't find one because there is not one," said Megan Fitzgerald, field director of the Center for Campus Free Speech.

Rep. Lawrence H. Curry, a Democrat who served on the committee, said that it was "nonsense" for Horowitz to say that the panel's work had validated his ideas. Curry said that throughout the process, he kept hearing from Horowitz supporters about groups of students who had stories of being punished for their political views, and that Curry offered to meet with them -- in public or private -- and that the students never materialized. "I'm on the students' side so if this was a problem, I wanted to know about it, but there never were these students," Curry said, adding that Horowitz deserves "an A for vivid imagination."

Some of the students who are named in the draft report also seem to challenge Horowitz's contention that the prevalence of liberal professors somehow makes it difficult for conservative students to get an education. The draft quotes the president of the Millersville University Republicans talking about a professor who discussed his anti-Bush views during the 2004 presidential campaign, and at least once in class noted this student's conservative leanings. Apparently she survived, as the report goes on to quote her saying that she had signed up for another course with the same professor "because I find him to be a brilliant professor."

The draft report describes in considerable detail the hearings held by the committee. And while Democrats and some academic leaders say the current draft favors pro-Horowitz testimony, there don't appear to be many disputes over the accuracy of the quotes and descriptions. The report goes on to note that there is no evidence of any but "rare" cases in which students are punished for their views, and that no legislation is needed. The draft criticizes the lack of political diversity on some campuses but again says there is no government role to carry out.

One area where the report says colleges aren't doing enough concerns policies for students who do feel discriminated against. The draft says that many students don't know their rights and that colleges should review their academic freedom policies to make sure student rights are protected, and make sure these policies are well publicized to students.

Horowitz said that this is the key point and explains why more students did not come forward. "How can students report abuses if there is no policy that explains what an abuse is, if there is no grievance machinery, and if the students are intimidated?" he asked. He also characterized as a "major victory" and a model the steps Temple University took this year to revise its grievance procedures. Temple officials characterized their action as one of clarifying and simplifying policies, as the university periodically does. Horowitz said that Temple's action was the result of the hearings and said Temple was "full of shit" for not acknowledging that it had made significant changes.

Many college leaders said that most colleges do in fact have policies to allow students to make complaints, but that there was no harm in reviewing them and publicizing them. But several said it was time to shift the discussion -- and that the protections many students want or need aren't from professors who express a view they may not like.

Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, said via e-mail: "I haven't been involved in any 'political bias' cases, but I have had front-row seats for sexual harassment allegations, egregious employment abuses of research assistants, and cases in which graduate students have had directors or committee members get weird or hostile and wind up trying to undermine them or drive them out of the program." Bérubé, author of What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts: Classroom Politics and 'Bias' in Higher Education, said that based on those and other experiences, "I have no quarrel with the committee's recommendations," even "if my concerns don't overlap with Horowitz's."

As colleges address these legitimate student concerns, Bérubé said, "I continue to wish that people would distinguish between 'academic freedom,' which is a property of the faculty and pertains to the intellectual autonomy necessary for their research and teaching, and 'student rights and responsibilities,' which is what the committee is talking about. Calling students' right to be free from political harassment 'academic freedom' only further confuses the meaning of 'academic freedom,' which is most vexing, since most people don't even know the difference between academic freedom and First Amendment freedoms to begin with."

Much of the debate about what the committee found centers on the evidence it gathered at the hearings and included in its report. Rep. Gib Armstrong, a Republican who was a leader of the panel, said that there are in fact many victims of political discrimination in Pennsylvania colleges -- some of whom came forward to him, but whom he could not identify in any way.

He said many students feared that if they came forward, they would receive bad grades and be unable to graduate. Asked why he didn't bring forward more recent graduates who -- their degrees in hand -- wouldn't have been at risk, Armstrong cited the Temple University policy (and didn't answer). He said the problem extended to professors, and described a female professor who felt she couldn't participate in a debate about the war in Iraq (she favored the U.S. invasion) without putting her tenure vote at risk. Armstrong said he couldn't identify her in any way.

Armstrong rejected the idea that the lack of some verifiable pattern of political discrimination constituted a defeat for Horowitz. One case of discrimination is too many, Armstrong said, so it doesn't matter if these incidents are rare. He said that Penn State and other universities "will create million-dollar diversity programs" when a single racist e-mail is sent to a black student. When bias takes place against black students, he said, universities respond without worrying about how widespread a problem an incident reflects.

"All we are asking for is an even standard," added Armstrong. Colleges "can't address the diversity issues they want and not the others."

Many others said that the evidence gathered by the committee flat out didn't support Armstrong's and Horowitz's statements -- even though the panel was created by Horowitz supporters. Free Exchange on Campus published an analysis Wednesday of all of the testimony the committee heard. The group noted that 24 of 28 students, 24 of 29 professors, and all 8 administrators who testified said that adequate protections for students were in place.

The analysis also noted that some claims that were made about Pennsylvania colleges by critics had subsequently been withdrawn. For example, at a hearing in January, Horowitz acknowledged that he had no evidence to back up a story he had told several times -- about a biology professor who used a class session just before the 2004 election to show the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Horowitz blamed the inaccurate information on a legislative staffer.

So where does Horowitz's movement go from here?

He said that the Pennsylvania process demonstrated that he could attract plenty of attention and force colleges to take him seriously with hearings. He said that the only reason he would focus on two or three states next year -- instead of more -- is that his staff isn't large enough to handle more states.

The recent elections -- while obviously not fought on issues of academic freedom -- may not help Horowitz or his campaign. Free Exchange on Campus tracked how members of the Pennsylvania committee fared in their re-election bids. The Democrats -- who generally were skeptical of Horowitz's claims -- are all coming back. Four Republicans -- including Armstrong -- were defeated. (In a twist, Armstrong said Wednesday that among the options he is considering when he leaves office at the end of the year is a job at a college in Pennsylvania. He declined to name it.)

Despite such losses, there is little doubt that Horowitz still has plenty of political allies. Arizona and Kentucky are mentioned as states where he may have strong enough support to advance legislation or push for committees to be created. This year, Arizona legislators considered -- and did not enact -- legislation that would have required public colleges to provide students with “alternative coursework" if a student found the assigned material “personally offensive,” which was defined as something that “conflicts with the student’s beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.” The legislation was opposed not only by faculty groups, but by Horowitz, who said it went too far in taking away professorial authority.

Larry Gold, who directs the higher education division of the American Federation of Teachers, said it would be a mistake to count Horowitz out. Gold said that the failure of the Pennsylvania committee to document a real problem was "a body blow" to Horowitz's movement, but not "the death knell." Added Gold: "His fame is fueled by finances, which aren't disappearing."

Bérubé said he thought the future success of Horowitz's efforts would depend on the future of the Republican Party.

"If matters were left wholly to the culture warriors on the right, legislatures would be consumed with Academic Bill of Rights hearings and anti-gay/lesbian resolutions and flag-burning amendments and stem cell research bans 24/7," he said. Not all Republicans want that agenda, he said. "In my state, the Arlen Specter wing of the GOP seems to be getting a little annoyed at the Rick Santorum wing.  Whether the culture-war right drives the party bus is something my colleagues on the opposite side of the aisle will have to figure out for themselves."

One problem with the kinds of hearings Horowitz wants, Bérubé said, is that they prevent other kinds of hearings: "If Democrats were to hold hearings on higher education, you know what they'd focus on -- mounting student debt, and the GOP's ties to the student-loan industry.  Which issues, do you think, matter more to the vast majority of students in American colleges (and their parents)?"


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