A new federal law requiring universities across the nation to offer an annual educational program on the study of the U.S. Constitution has drawn criticism from Yale officials and faculty who believe the law violates colleges’ academic freedom.
All American educational institutions receiving federal funding are now required to hold annual special programs on the Constitution on Sept. 17, which Congress declared as Constitution and Citizenship Day to mark the anniversary of the first meeting of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The provision was inserted by Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd into the 3,000-page federal spending bill which President Bush signed into law last month.
“While our educational system is good at ingraining feelings of respect and reverence for our Constitution, that same system is in need of great improvements in teaching what is actually in the Constitution and just why it is so important to our daily lives,” Byrd said in a statement his office released last month. “That’s the focus of my legislation.”
Yale officials and faculty members said they agreed the Constitution is an important document for students to understand, but said the provision is difficult to implement and is an infringement upon universities’ academic freedom. By ignoring the provision and neglecting to hold the required program, the University would place in jeopardy its federal funding, which tops $300 million annually.
“The Constitution is a brilliant document, but for the Congress to prescribe the curriculum of the nation’s colleges is a bad precedent,” Yale President Richard Levin said.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey agreed that the Constitution is an important part of students’ education but said he finds the provision misguided, noting that Yale offers undergraduate courses teaching the Constitution every semester.
“Maybe that would be enough,” Salovey said. “It’s hard for me to imagine how the implementation of this would work.”
Yale historian and history professor emeritus Gaddis Smith suggested Levin and Salovey could organize an open panel discussion on the Constitution.
Smith said he thinks the provision has the potential to negatively affect the government’s relationship with educational institutions.
“It’s such an absurdity, and, if taken seriously, it shows such an abysmal ignorance of the nature of educational institutions,” Smith said.
Yale Director of Federal Relations Richard Jacob, who handles much of Yale’s federal lobbying, said he found the provision to be intrusive. Jacob said he plans to consult peer institutions before approaching lawmakers.
Stanford University General Counsel Patricia Zumwalt said Stanford has not yet taken a position for or against the provision.
“Obviously, we’ll comply with the law,” Zumwalt said.
Smith said the Constitution is the subject of considerable academic debate and expressed fear that the provision, if enforced, would permit the federal government to act as a “thought police” and could eventually dictate the minutia of how the Constitution should be taught.
The provision does not mark the first time the federal government has tried to influence curriculum in higher education, Smith said. During World War I, the United States required universities to teach a course on “American values.” Yale decided not to offer any such class, but satisfied the government’s requirement by classifying its American history courses as courses on American values.