Neoconservative David Horowitz has uncovered a profound and apparently disastrous situation at campuses across the nation — the majority of American higher education facilities have liberal tendencies, and even more frightening, the majority of professors are Democrats.
Horowitz has proposed the Academic Bill of Rights to solve the “problem.” The bill seeks to create a classroom environment that “stresses intellectual diversity and demands balance in reading lists.” Also, “political partisanship” in the classroom on the part of professors must be recognized as “an abuse of students’ academic freedoms.” Lawmakers in California, Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere are considering tenets of the bill, while similar bills are already moving forward in Colorado, Georgia and Missouri. Differing slightly from state to state, the template consists essentially of five student rights and three faculty rights.
There is no disputing Horowitz’s claim that liberal tendencies overpower conservative beliefs on the average college campus. You only have to open your ears while sitting in the dining hall to hear the single conservative voice — if it exists — battling against a myriad of Democrats. A 2003 Santa Clara University study showed that this unbalance between conservatives and liberals extends up to the professorial level as well. But forcing legislation down on centers of higher education is no way to “solve” this inequality, which should not be addressed on a legislative level.
According to legislators on both sides of the aisle, there have been no serious widespread complaints of students being discriminated against by professors for their political beliefs. As Rep. Thomas Stevenson, the Republican chairman of a committee investigating the issue, told The New York Times last month: “If our report were issued today, I’d say our institutions of higher education are doing a fine job.” Horowitz is proposing a solution while still in search of a problem.
While some proposed student rights are unnecessary but harmless, others are potentially dangerous and problematic with regard to precedent and the separation of powers. One section of the bill template states that student fee funds must be distributed on a “viewpoint-neutral basis.” The issue has already been addressed in the March 2000 Supreme Court decision Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Scott Southworth, making legislation redundant and confusing.
Other rights leave important decisions out of faculty hands, even if they are in the best position to make them. The bill demands “access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion,” as though university faculty are unable to determine what constitutes scholarly opinion. Should Marxism be taught as an alternative to modern business practice at business schools? If intelligent design is taught in biology classrooms, why not include discussion on Lysenkioism, a branch of biology widely accepted in the early 1900s by the Soviet Union?
There is no need for the administrative oversight that the bill suggests. This is not to say that academic instructors have never acted unethically or in manners compromising their position of authority, but there are already processes in place that ensure many of the rights suggested. As the American Association of University Professors asserts, breaches of standard conduct among professional educators are best dealt with through redress by faculty peers. Repudiation of such a central tenet undermines the academic autonomy and self-governance that American universities have flourished under for centuries.
Passing legislation to control rights effectively wielded by the university is a step in the wrong direction. It will create a flood of nuisance suits seeking to address a “problem” that doesn’t exist. Hopefully state committees will come to understand that before passing the detrimental statute.
Evan Leitner is a freshman in Pierson College.