States debate meaning of academic freedom

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Christian DeJohn returned from a National Guard tour in Bosnia only to fight his own war with academics at Temple University who he says have held up his master’s thesis because of political conflicts in the classroom.

To some conservatives, the case represents a national trend by some liberal professors to infringe on conservative students’ right to free speech at public colleges and universities.

The debate has reached more than a dozen state legislatures, which dole out the taxpayer funds to those schools, but so far there’s been more talk than action.

Legislation modeled after an "academic bill of rights" advocated by conservative activist David Horowitz [ed. note: David Horowitz has no relation to PSU professor David A. Horowitz], founder of Students for Academic Freedom, was introduced in at least 15 states last year, but none has passed it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Among other things, the document exhorts professors to present a wide spectrum of intellectual views in the classroom and discourages them from basing students’ grades on their religious or political beliefs.

Julie Bell, the conference’s education program director, said legislatures have not forced the issue because even public universities typically enjoy considerable autonomy in setting academic policies and procedures.

"Most legislatures have backed away because they really do acknowledge that separation," Bell said.

An Ohio state senator suspended his push for legislation last year after state universities approved a resolution requiring them to ensure students are not graded based on political opinions.

In Pennsylvania, legislators investigating whether their state’s public colleges are hospitable to divergent intellectual and political views traveled to Temple for a hearing last week where a small number of students including DeJohn voiced their complaints.

DeJohn, who entered graduate school four years ago, said he suspects that approval of his thesis is being delayed partly because of conflicts he had with a military history professor who, DeJohn said, often criticized the Iraq war and the Bush administration during class. DeJohn contends the delay is also retaliation for a critical response he sent to a professor after he received an e-mail invitation to a campus war protest while he was serving six months in Bosnia.

"These are people who are sitting in judgment on whether I graduate," DeJohn told the lawmakers.

One of the student’s professors said Thursday he could not comment about a student, while the other did not return a phone or respond to e-mail request.

Both professors testified during the public-comment portion of the hearing and said their decision was based on academic reasons and not on DeJohn’s military status, according to Rep. Lawrence Curry, a committee member.

Pennsylvania’s inquiry was authorized by the state House at the behest of Rep. Gibson C. Armstrong, who says he merely wants the committee to assess whether political orthodoxy is a widespread problem and whether a legislative remedy is warranted.

"I don’t think anyone on this committee is interested in seeing the government … interfere in what happens in our state college classrooms," the Republican said at the hearing.

William E. Scheuerman, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said universities fear the prospect of government micromanagement.

"Merely the threat of government intervention is enough, believe me, to frighten college administrators and some faculty so they are less likely to raise tough questions," he said.

Advocates for tighter controls are trying other strategies, as well. At the University of California, Los Angeles, a conservative alumni group offered students money to police professors accused of pushing liberal views ?” a move that sparked a former congressman and two others to quit the group’s advisory board, saying Wednesday that the tactic was extreme.

Horowitz said verifying the accuracy of every bias complaint is difficult. But he told the lawmakers at Temple that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found last year that half of students surveyed said professors frequently comment in class on politics ?” even when it is not relevant to the course.

"I would not be here if I weren’t persuaded by 20 years of walking around campuses and seeing this," Horowitz said.

Rep. Dan Surra, a member of the Pennsylvania committee who has questioned the need for the investigation, said nothing so far has swayed him. Students in his rural district complain about such issues as tuition, but not about professors’ biases, the Democrat said.

"I’ve said it’s the educational equivalent of the hunt for Bigfoot," he said.