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UC Faculty Back Policy Increasing Their Freedom

Times Staff Writer

The faculty of the University of California voted Thursday to revise the institution’s nearly 70-year-old policy on academic freedom, endorsing changes that would allow professors more latitude to express their political and personal beliefs in the classroom.

The proposal, which has stirred considerable debate among faculty and some students in recent months, was endorsed 45 to 3 by the university’s Academic Assembly, meeting at UC Berkeley. The policy must be approved by UC President Richard C. Atkinson, but it does not need a vote by the Board of Regents.

The university’s existing policy, drafted in 1934, was adopted at a time of widespread fear of the danger of “subversive” professors’ indoctrinating students during lectures, said Gayle Binion, the UC’s top faculty representative.

It required faculty members to make impartial, “dispassionate” presentations. “Where it becomes necessary ... to consider political, social, or sectarian movements, they are dissected and examined -- not taught, and the conclusion left, with no tipping of the scales, to the logic of the facts,” the policy states.

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But Binion, a UC Santa Barbara political science professor, and others say that has never been the reality of the university classroom -- at the UC or most other research institutions.

Earlier this year, Atkinson called the policy outdated and urged the faculty to revise it, to bring it more into line with the standards of academic freedom at most other major institutions.

The new policy says that the university seeks to develop a “mature independence of mind” in its students. “Although competent scholarship requires an open mind, this does not mean that faculty are unprofessional if they reach definite conclusions,” it states.

The new policy was drafted by UC Berkeley law professor Robert Post, an expert on the 1st Amendment. It was prompted in part by a controversy last year over a UC Berkeley graduate student instructor who warned “conservative thinkers” to steer clear of his class on Palestinian poetry. The course description was later rewritten and students were assured that all viewpoints were welcome.

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Proponents of the change say that safeguards for students are included in the faculty code of conduct, including a section that bars professors from trying to “coerce the judgment” of students.

Critics said they were disappointed but not surprised at the vote. “The faculty, especially younger faculty, don’t want to be constrained,” said Martin Trow, an emeritus professor of public policy at UC Berkeley who had opposed the change.

Also opposed to the proposal was Luann Wright, a San Diego schoolteacher and educational consultant. She launched a Web site last year to track allegations of political bias by professors after her son, Kyle, now a fourth-year student at UC San Diego, complained about what he said was anti-white bias in a freshman writing class.

“I’m very concerned about the changes,” Wright said. “This gives much greater latitude to those professors who would use the classroom as a personal bully pulpit. UC students and the people of California deserve better.”


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