David Horowitz Wins a Round

April 20, 2009

For all the controversy over the "Academic Bill of Rights", David Horowitz's statement of his views of academic freedom, the document has been adopted rarely. But on Thursday, the board of the College of DuPage, a community college outside Chicago, adopted as official policy a statement based on the Horowitz document.

The board's action followed months of debate and intense faculty opposition. At DuPage as elsewhere, professors say the Academic Bill of Rights is a tool to limit what they can say, opens them up to legal or other challenges for making statements that are anything but bland, and distorts the concept of academic freedom. Some board supporters of the policy change will soon be leaving their seats -- and faculty leaders are vowing to go to court to undo the policy, if the reconstituted board does not repeal it.

The policies adopted by the DuPage board Thursday include language that some professors fear will make it impossible for them to explain to students that issues such as evolution are not in question in reputable scientific circles. For example, one measure states: "Faculty members will be free to present instructional materials which are pertinent to the subject and level taught. Faculty members have a duty to present controversial issues in an unbiased manner which respects their students’ rights to academic freedom to determine for themselves the proper resolution of such issues."

Much of the language in the policies -- like the wording of the Academic Bill of Rights -- expresses the idea that professors at DuPage (and nationally) tend to agree with, with measures stating that students should be graded and faculty members hired on the basis of academic criteria, not political litmus tests.

But faculty members said that by codifying matters as the board has done, the college is exposing them to intrusion from board members or administrators wanting to measure "balance" on a syllabus or to debate which matters are settled fact and which aren't. "Curricula and reading lists in some disciplines should reflect the uncertainty of all human knowledge," the board policy now states. "While faculty members are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should also consider making their students aware that other viewpoints exist. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions."

The measure also seems to rule out the possibility that faculty members could teach a course from their philosophical perspective, and seems to equate doing so with disrespect for students. "Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Courses will not be used for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or anti-religious indoctrination."

The college had originally included these with dozens of other policy changes on a range of topics (many of them non-controversial), but pulled those items related to the Academic Bill of Rights off the agenda in March, when many other policy changes were approved. That move led some faculty to hope that they had been heard. But the college board and leaders -- while not identifying specific problems caused by the lack of policy -- moved ahead with the additional rules.

Robert L. Breuder, president of the college, said that the policy changes reflected a "very inclusive process."

Since professors voiced opposition to the policy changes throughout, they say that the process was anything but inclusive. Nancy Stanko, president of the faculty union there (a National Education Association affiliate), said that the "board members are trying to control what goes on in the classroom."

Stanko said that the professors are considering ways to attack the policy in court. "We have made it clear from the beginning that we will not allow this."

Professors are particularly frustrated because, during a time that the board was in their opinion ignoring professors, board members took time to consult with Horowitz about the issue. Horowitz praised DuPage's board and criticized the faculty who are objecting to its actions. "It is a sad commentary on the academic community that faculty should first of all have to be instructed to respect the principles of academic freedom and academic professionalism that were first articulated by the American Association of University Professors in 1915 and formed the basis for the development of the modern research university," Horowitz said. "It is shameful that the present-day AAUP and other teacher unions have been unalterably opposed to the re-statement of this policy by the DuPage trustees and have fought its adoption tooth and nail."

Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, said that while the DuPage policy "includes many unproblematic elements," it also has features that "can easily be used to undermine academic freedom." It cannot be considered "ideological indoctrination," Nelson said, to "expect that students master the theory of evolution or the idea that gender's meanings are socially constructed." The policy inappropriately gives the college the right to decide which topics are "controversial" and which ones merit "unbiased treatment," he said. And Nelson said that these findings can't be the basis for deciding what to teach or how to teach.

Nelson also noted a provision in the policy requiring that outside speakers be selected on the basis of promoting "intellectual pluralism." Nelson and the AAUP have said repeatedly that speakers should be invited because people on campus are interested in hearing them speak -- whatever their views. Nelson said that few things "are as stifling to free inquiry as a demand that invited speakers represent a balanced spectrum of opinion."

Viewing the DuPage actions as a whole, Nelson said that "this policy is a disaster for education in a democratic society."

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