The Case for Academic Freedom

A recent proposal in the Tennessee General Assembly has caused a great deal of angst on college campuses in our state over the past couple weeks. The bill (HB0432), proposed by State Rep. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville in the House, and Raymond Finney of Maryville in the Senate, is known as the “Academic Bill of Rights.” To hear some tell it, you’d think it was an effort to repeal the first amendment. Professors at this and other institutions strongly oppose it. Some label it a “witch hunt.” It has been editorialized against on these pages. Let’s examine it.

So what is this bill that has caused such wailing and gnashing of teeth among the academic elite? It is basically a proposal to encourage a greater diversity of viewpoints in the classroom. It is an attempt to outline some basic rights students should have in order to ensure that they will not be treated unfairly if they have religious or political views that are not shared by their professor. Among rights outlined in the bill include:

* “The right to expect that their academic freedom will not be infringed upon by instructors who create a hostile environment toward their political or religious beliefs or who introduce controversial matter into the classroom or course work that is substantially unrelated to the subject of study.”

* “The right to expect that they will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects they study and that they shall not be discriminated against on the basis of their political or religious beliefs…”

* “The right to expect that their academic institutions shall distribute student fee funds on a viewpoint neutral basis and shall maintain a posture of neutrality with respect to substantive political or religious disagreements, differences, and opinions…”

* “The right to be fully informed of their institutions’ grievance procedures for violations of academic freedom by means of notices prominently displayed in course catalogues, student handbooks, and on the institutional web site.”

Oh, the horror!

A similar Academic Bill of Rights is being considered by a number of other states. It was first proposed by the group, Students for Academic Freedom, a nonprofit campus organization nationally headed by noted intellectual David Horowitz. This group has been fighting “political correctness” and attempting to expand the boundaries of knowledge on approximately 150 campuses across the country (UT has a chapter). The main principal of the organization is that it is hard to get a good education if you are only getting half the story.

The bill is naturally controversial, as any new regulation always is. Some professors feel that it limits their academic freedoms. This is not true; it merely seeks to protect college students (who are, after all, what colleges and universities exist for) from professors who treat students unfairly, either by giving them lower grades than they deserve or maliciously attack their religion or political views. If anything, it will encourage more students to speak up about their views, and thus enhance freedom of speech.

Recently, someone asked how conservatives, who generally favor limited government, could support such a bill. After all, it is an intrusion into the classroom, is it not? And conservatives generally want the government out of as many institutions as possible. Does the government really have any right involving itself in the classroom?

The problem with this reasoning is that the government is ALREADY in the classroom. The UT system and the Board of Regents are state-sponsored. They are funded by taxpayer dollars. Therefore, is it really so unreasonable to expect that taxpayers, who are footing the bill, should have some oversight in higher education, through their elected officials? To say no, I would argue, is very arrogant and condescending. The people of Tennessee are intelligent enough to know what constitutes education and what constitutes indoctrination.

There is much politically correct rot contaminating campuses (see Ward Churchill or Evan Coyne Maloney’s “Brainwashing 101″). Often lost in the debates are the voices of the students. Enhancing their voices is hardly a bad thing.

State Rep. Stacey Campfield and State Sen. Raymond Finney are to be applauded for their efforts to encourage a wider array of voices on college campuses. Everyone, whether they be liberal, conservative, or moderate, who supports a broader and more balanced education, should support their legislation.

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