A week ago, 28 higher education groups issued a statement  on "academic rights and responsibilities" that was designed in part to prevent David Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights" from gaining more support in Congress or state legislatures. The idea  was to show that colleges -- despite what Horowitz says -- care about fairness and intellectual diversity.
No one is coming out against fairness and intellectual diversity. But the American Federation of Teachers -- which represents 130,000 faculty members -- is not happy about the statement (even if it doesn't object to the words in it). AFT leaders say that the statement will invite Congress and legislatures to weigh in on higher education in inappropriate ways. In addition, they worry that the joint statement gave legitimacy to Horowitz, whose views have offended many academics.
Lawrence Gold, director of program and policy development for the AFT, said that if the House of Representatives endorses the associations' statement, as many expect it will, "it will involve the government describing how the academy should protect academic matters," adding, "we don't think the government has any business here."
AFT officials met this week with leaders of the American Council on Education, which coordinated the efforts to release the statement, to discuss their concerns. (Officials of the National Education Association have also been involved in the discussions, but could not be reached for comment.) In addition, some rank and file members of the American Association of University Professors have been questioning why that group signed on to the statement. Privately, some faculty members have said that the AAUP and the other higher education groups "caved" to Horowitz, although other faculty leaders say that the statement was a shrewd political move.
The dispute is one of subtleties, albeit important ones. Much of the statement issued by the higher education groups and indeed parts of the Academic Bill of Rights don't upset faculty members, who say that they have always followed principles of judging students on their academic merits, not political litmus tests. The Academic Bill of Rights, which was introduced in numerous state legislatures this year and is included, in resolution form, in the Higher Education Act legislation that Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee introduced this spring, goes further.
Many faculty members believe that its definitions of fairness would force them to avoid taking firm stands on anything, and would require them to present alternative views on such subjects as the Holocaust and evolution. The joint statement of the college groups, however, specifically said that government shouldn't be deciding what should be taught, and that colleges and disciplines need to take the lead role in such decisions.
But Gold, of the AFT, said that tacitly endorsing the idea of the House or state legislatures adopting that statement runs directly counter to the statement's ideal of keeping government out of academic decisions altogether. Gold said that the AFT and the NEA -- which have worked together  to oppose the Academic Bill of Rights -- would continue to oppose any resolution on these issues being passed in Congress, even one based on the joint statement.
Gold stressed that he saw the joint statement of college groups as much better than the Academic Bill of Rights, and that those who drafted the statement were "not the bad guys here."
The problem for those who don't like the statement is that they view Horowitz as a bad guy, believing that he has distorted what goes on in higher education and the records of some faculty members. For so many higher education groups to issue a statement responding to his movement, they say, gives him stature he doesn't deserve.
"That statement allows some of the people who have been most critical of higher education and most wrong about it to say that they bested us, even though that couldn't have been anyone's intention on the part of those who did it," Gold said. "It's being portrayed as, 'Higher education realized the error of its ways and put this together.' "
Mark Smith, director of government relations for the AAUP, said that he has heard such concerns from some members, although he said that the statement "speaks for itself" and shouldn't be viewed as helping Horowitz.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the ACE, said that the statement was not written for Congress or Horowitz. "We have been hearing from college and university presidents that they felt exposed because there was not a statement that they could point to as what they work for," and this statement provides them with a set of principles to use.
Hartle said that while he wasn't seeking to have Congress endorse the statement, it was likely that the House of Representatives was going to adopt some resolution this year, and that it was important for lawmakers to have an alternative to the Academic Bill of Rights. "If we have something that we wrote and that is broadly acceptable to the higher education community and something we didn't write and that we have serious concerns about, I'm going to go with what we wrote," he said.
As to whether Horowitz gained legitimacy from the associations' statement, Hartle said that Horowitz's influence in some circles made him a force already, regardless of what one thinks of his ideas. "David Horowitz is already legitimate," Hartle said. "The notion that some people think he isn't given great weight and attention by policy makers is just wrong."
As for Horowitz, he said that the unions should be embracing his efforts, and those of the groups that issued the joint statement last week. In an e-mail interview, he said, "The American Council on Education statement merely recognizes the fact that in the present academic and political climates it is important to reiterate the university community's commitment to intellectual diversity and pluralism and to nondiscrimination against anyone in the academy -- student or professor, left or right."
Horowitz said that if he has more influence as a result of the debates over the Academic Bill of Rights, "it is only because I have called attention to these problems and to the need for academic organizations and institutions to recommit themselves to these principles and values. If the NEA and the AFT want to continue to oppose them and play an obstructionist role, that is unfortunate, but it is their decision."
Some faculty leaders applaud the joint statement. Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that "progressive faculty members" face far more risks of their rights being violated than conservative faculty members, and that risk will increase should the United States suffer additional terrorist attacks. So Nelson said that the statement endorsed by the college groups would be good for those professors.
Noting that such principles would have protected scholars who lost jobs during the McCarthy era or other periods, Nelson said that in the context of the history of American higher education, Horowitz should be viewed "as just a recent blip on the screen."