From Bad to Worse for David Horowitz

Pennsylvania panel strips language he liked and affirms that students aren't oppressed for political views. He decries "cabal" for "stealing" report.
November 22, 2006

A week ago, it looked like David Horowitz had a few things to be thankful for in the emerging report of the Pennsylvania legislative panel that was looking for examples of violations of students' rights because of their political views.

Sure, the committee had reported that it didn't really find examples of the alleged oppression that he maintains is widespread. But Horowitz pointed to the committee's recommendation that colleges adopt policies to protect student rights. And he liked the many pages included in the draft report that summarized testimony by Horowitz and some of his allies. Those are all gone in the final version of the report the committee approved Tuesday, which is being hailed by academic groups as completely vindicating their views.

Horowitz said that he was furious about the "breathtaking audacity of this theft of the report by the Democrats and the unions," and that a "cabal" of faculty leaders had convinced "weak-spined Republicans" (who controlled the committee) to go along with the "theft." He maintained, however, that despite the "travesty and the cover-up," he was in fact pleased with what he accomplished in Pennsylvania.

In the end, though, the panel on Tuesday stripped away what he had been citing as points of victory. The final report kept the language saying that it couldn't find evidence of problems with students' rights. On whether colleges need new policies, the report's language changed, noting that some colleges have such policies and need only review them. On student evaluations of faculty members, the report shifted from urging colleges to change them to urging colleges to look at them and make their own decisions.

Two other things struck academic observers as significant: By removing all the pages summarizing testimony (a summary that many college officials believed was one-sided in favor of Horowitz), the committee removed a permanent record that seemed unfavorable and many thought unfair to academe. And because the final vote on the report was unanimous -- on a committee controlled by Republicans -- the committee made it more difficult for Horowitz to blame his problems on liberals.

Under the heading "Victory in Pennsylvania," the blog Free Exchange on Campus -- which is produced by a coalition of groups opposed to Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights" -- declared Tuesday that the committee had backed what faculty members have been saying all along. "Institutions should continue to do what they are doing," the blog urged.

Horowitz's movement originally was pushing for states to adopt his "Bill of Rights," which calls for balance in classroom instruction and for students not to be punished for their views. While those sound like innocuous goals, many professors view them as potentially forcing them to give up control over their classrooms, and to have to welcome creationism or Holocaust denial as being on equal footing with real biology and history. And while professors have not generally disputed Horowitz's complaints that a majority of faculty lean left, academic groups have said he has failed consistently to show that this lopsidedness is having any meaningful impact on students.

In getting the Pennsylvania House of Representative to create a panel to study these issues, Horowitz won his major legislative victory last year, so the report's outcome has been highly anticipated. Last week, he said he viewed Pennsylvania as a model for what he hoped to accomplish elsewhere and that he would be working to create similar panels in other states next year. On Tuesday, he said that despite his disappointment in the panel's vote, he still viewed it as a model -- as long as he can find states where faculty unions can't sway legislators.

Craig Smith, a spokesman for the AFT and Free Exchange on Campus, said that if Pennsylvania is a model, he's not worried at all. "He counted his chickens before they were hatched," thinking the committee would back his claims, but in the end the panel rejected Horowitz's ideas, Smith said. "And that's going to happen in any state where people look at what's really going on in higher education."

Asked how he could claim victory when the legislative panel had worked so hard to identify student victims, and failed, Horowitz offered more stories of students who were being hurt. He said that he had spoken to a dance student who was upset about her paper's grade and that he had encouraged her to file a grievance. She didn't want to. Horowitz acknowledged that there was no political issue in the paper, but said her reluctance to go through the grievance machinery showed the problems that students face.

Then Horowitz said that he had heard that a political science professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Diana Zoelle, had given a test in which students were forced to explain why the war in Iraq is wrong, with the implication that their grade would be lower if they did not back that position. Horowitz acknowledged that he had not checked out the report, although Zoelle reported that she has been hearing from others that Horowitz has been speaking about the alleged exam.

Reached while en route to her Thanksgiving vacation, Zoelle said that Horowitz was "absolutely incorrect." She said that Horowitz and his staff never called to ask her about the exam, although she asked around when she heard that he was telling people about some complaint about her. She said that she has never used a test question about the Iraq war. She said that the closest thing she can think of is a question a few years ago in which she asked students to analyze an essay in which a scholar suggested that the United States has a double standard on human rights. Students needed to summarize and comment on the scholar's argument. Zoelle said that students had to explain what this scholar was saying -- before they either endorsed or criticized it. She noted that this is a common pedagogical tool. "You have to explain what the argument is before you discuss it."

Zoelle said that students were not graded based on their view of the argument, only their ability to explain and comment on it. She said she would gladly have explained this to Horowitz had he ever called.

"I think this is just a desperate attempt on his part to try to make a point," she said. "It's really childish."

Horowitz, asked why he couldn't document more of the cases of students being hurt -- the basis of his movement -- said: "Why do I have to run around the country finding these kids?"


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