Worried that left-wing professors are using college classrooms to bully those who don't toe the liberal line, a Colorado politician says it may be time to pass a law protecting students who hold more conservative or religious views.
Republican state Sen. John Andrews, Senate president, recently sent a letter to Colorado's 31 public colleges and universities, asking them to explain how they handle cases of ideological discrimination and how they promote diverse points of view. Their answers are due back by Monday. If he's unhappy with what he hears, Andrews vowed, he'll sponsor legislation to "ensure academic freedom."
Exactly how the bill would do that has not been worked out.
"To say college campuses are liberal is like saying water is wet," Andrews said. "I have heard that a conservative viewpoint is decidedly unwelcome."
Students have complained of being forced to attend abortion rights rallies, of being required to write essays critical of the Bush administration and of having a strident antireligion agenda pushed on them. Some who protested said they received poor grades or were asked to leave class.
For their part, Colorado colleges say they have safeguards protecting those who feel under attack because of their beliefs.
"I don't think we are biased. And if there are issues of bias, we want to know about them," said Bob Nero, a spokesman for the University of Colorado at Boulder. "In our [bylaws], we think we have the issues of intellectual diversity pretty well covered."
Andrews, who represents the Denver suburb of Centennial, said liberals began taking over America's colleges in the 1960s and are now the dominant force on campus. He decided a few months ago to take on the issue, but first consulted well-known leftist-turned-rightist David Horowitz, founder of Students for Academic Freedom, a group pushing for more conservative viewpoints on campus.
The lawmaker was attacked by those who said he was pushing an ideological quota system, where every liberal professor would have to be balanced by a conservative.
Andrews -- who says he abhors quotas -- charged ahead, armed with anecdotes he believed showed a systematic bias against conservatives on campus.
In one case, he said, a student came to class in an ROTC uniform and was berated by his antimilitary professor. In another, a criminology class was told to write an essay on why President Bush was a war criminal. When a student instead wrote why Saddam Hussein was the war criminal, she was given a failing grade, Andrews said.
"Liberalism at its best adheres to openness and tolerance and is accepting and inviting of dissent against itself," he said. "Liberalism, when it gets lazy, wants the privilege of dissent against society but doesn't want others to dissent against it."
The request to review the colleges' policies on intellectual diversity and discrimination has drawn fierce criticism from those who see it less as an appeal for tolerance and more of a ham-handed attempt by conservatives to meddle in the classroom.
"I think the whole thing is ridiculous," said state Sen. Ken Gordon, a Democrat from Denver. "I think it's a witch hunt, a conspiracy theory. I am fairly certain that most professors are not punishing students for being conservative."
Gordon teaches political science at the University of Colorado at Denver.
"I like when a student challenges me or disagrees with me, that's what college is for," he said. "I don't like the idea of legislators getting involved in the details on how we run our universities. Our universities are one of the good things about Colorado."
The American Assn. of University Professors agreed. The Washington, D.C.-based group said that although classrooms should not be propaganda forums, professors must be free to decide what to teach.
"It is the professors' decision; it is emphatically not a decision to be made by politicians," said Jonathan Knight, a spokesman for the organization. "We do not elect politicians because of their experience in how to teach medieval poetry or modern philosophy. If there is legislation, it would be contrary to the very values the sponsors wish to see enshrined in colleges and universities, namely, vigorous debate."
On a national level, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) last month introduced a resolution calling for an academic bill of rights.
"We want people to know when they walk into a college that they will get an education, not [a liberal] indoctrination," his spokesman said.
Until then, some students are taking matters into their own hands. In the last few months, they have formed groups to discuss and report incidents of bias against them by a professor.
"I had a professor who made fun of Jesus on the cross; another professor told the class no true scientist could not believe in evolution; and another time I had a professor say sex between a man and a boy is not necessarily child abuse," said Erin Bergstrom, 44, of Loveland, Colo., who attended two colleges before coming to Regis University in Denver. "I expected a variety of viewpoints to be presented in a fair and objective manner. I am not there to hear a professor's own opinion -- I am there to learn."
Bergstrom volunteers for Students for Academic Freedom, an offshoot of the national organization by the same name, and talks to students who feel persecuted for their beliefs.
"They are afraid to go public with their stories because they are young, and speaking out against a professor is not something you do," she said. "A lot of classrooms are hostile learning environments right now."
Nick Bahl, a spirited 22-year-old columnist for the student newspaper at Metropolitan State College of Denver, isn't shy about going public.
His mostly conservative columns have generated fliers across campus calling him a hatemonger. One professor even threatened legal action if Bahl wrote an editorial complaining she was biased.
"I'm not even a conservative, really. I just write that way here because no one else will," he said. "I wrote what could be perceived as a pro-war column, and that's where this hatemonger stuff started."
Bahl, a journalism major, said a professor told him she would shoot herself if she were a conservative. In another case, he said, a teacher asked why he didn't participate more in class.
"I wrote a note to her saying her liberal bias gave me a headache and I didn't want to take part," he said. "I came back to class and she told me to get out. I had to retake the whole class."
The president of the college was unavailable for comment.
Despite this, Bahl doesn't support a law to protect him from perceived bias attacks.
"The Andrews legislation is pointless," he said. "I think this is a college issue; doing it with legislation is ridiculous."