STEPHEN ZELNICK is a political moderate who has taught in the English department at Temple University for 37 years. He has served as president of the faculty senate, as director of the university’s writing programs and, more recently, was vice provost for undergraduate studies.
On Jan. 10, Zelnick and I testified as witnesses before a Pennsylvania House Committee on Academic Freedom, possibly the first such committee in the history of higher education in America.
Zelnick told the legislators that as director of two undergraduate programs, he had observed the classes of more than 100 teachers. He had “seen excellent, indifferent and miserable teaching,” he said.
But in all those courses, he added, “I have rarely heard a kind word for the United States, for the riches of our marketplace, for the vast economic and creative opportunities made available for energetic and creative people (that is, for our students); for family life, for marriage, for love, or for religion.”
I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear that. The hearings in Pennsylvania are a direct outgrowth of the campaign I launched in September 2003 to persuade colleges and universities to adopt an “Academic Bill of Rights” to protect students from unprofessional political indoctrination by their professors. My bill said, for example, that students should be exposed to “the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints” and not force-fed an orthodoxy on matters that are controversial.
I began the campaign by trying to convince university trustees and administrators directly that a student’s right to an intellectually honest, intellectually diverse education was in jeopardy because of professors -- particularly from the left -- who were determined to indoctrinate students with their own political opinions. But I turned to legislatures when I found the schools unwilling to listen.
Two years later, more than a dozen legislatures have considered “academic freedom” legislation, including Florida, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, Tennessee and other states. Universities in Colorado and Ohio have adopted new academic freedom rules (after we withdrew legislation that would have forced them to do so), and Pennsylvania has been holding academic freedom hearings as a result of our efforts.
In California, a bill to create an academic bill of rights didn’t make it out of committee in the Legislature last year, but is to be reconsidered in the weeks ahead.
University administrators like to suggest that we are wasting our time trying to solve a non-problem. In the fall of 2003, I visited Elizabeth Hoffman, then president of the University of Colorado, who told me, “David, we have no problem here.” A year and half later, one of the many extremist professors on her faculty, Ward Churchill, became a figure of national notoriety when the public learned that he had referred to the victims of 9/11 as “little Eichmanns,” and had argued that Americans deserved even worse.
As a result of the public outcry, Hoffman was forced to resign. Churchill resigned as head of the ethnic studies department, but is still on the faculty.
The American public understands that a university should be a marketplace of ideas, and that people on both sides of the spectrum will go off the deep end at times. But they will not be so charitable if they believe that the universities are becoming partisan themselves.
Yet the one-sided nature of university faculties has now been the subject of several academic studies. A 2003 study by professor Daniel Klein of Santa Clara University, for instance, found that around the country Democrats outnumbered Republicans about 30 to 1 in the field of anthropology, about 28 to 1 in sociology, and about 7 to 1 in political science.
Another study, conducted by professors at Smith College, the University of Toronto and George Mason University, looked at data from a large national sample of professors and found that professors of English who identified themselves as leaning left outnumbered their conservative-leaning colleagues by 30 to 1; professors of political science by 40 to 1; and professors of history by 8 to 1.
The Churchill problem is not unique to Colorado but reflects a systemwide intellectual corruption in the academic world. Churchill could not have been hired, promoted, given tenure or been made chairman of his department without the support of his entire department, his dean, the university administration and about a dozen scholars in the field of ethnic studies, all of whom would have had to support him in each step of the process.
The Academic Bill of Rights is a modest attempt to improve a bad and deteriorating situation on our campuses. It would restore the idea of intellectual diversity as a central educational value. It would make students aware that they should be getting more than one side of controversial issues and that they should not be browbeaten (or graded) on the basis of their political opinions.
Opponents of the Academic Bill of Rights -- including radicalized organizations that now represent the academic profession, such as the American Assn. of University Professors, American Historical Assn., Modern Language Assn. and American Federation of Teachers -- have attempted to block its progress by waging a campaign of gross misrepresentation and falsehood, accusing me of seeking to put the government in control of university curricula, and of trying to have left-wing professors fired.
They say that our campaign would require universities to teach such minority positions as Holocaust denial and intelligent design. These claims are patently untrue. Anyone who wants can read the Academic Bill of Rights (which is posted at www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org.) There is not a single sentence in it that would substantiate their charges.
The creation of the Pennsylvania committee was the work of a former Marine, Republican state Rep. Gibson C. Armstrong. In the summer of 2004, Armstrong was approached by a constituent named Jennie Mae Brown, a student at the York campus of Penn State who complained to him about a physics professor who, she told the New York Times, regularly used class time to “belittle President Bush and the war in Iraq.” According to the article, “as an Air Force veteran, Ms. Brown said she felt the teacher’s comments were inappropriate for the classroom.”
Although many professors put activism before scholarship, and are indeed guilty of such unprofessional abuses of their classrooms, I believe they represent a minority of faculty, part of an academic subculture that confuses political consciousness-raising with education.
I believe that the majority of university professors in this country are people of goodwill, and the campaign I have launched is designed to encourage them to take a stand in defense of educational values and academic freedom in the classroom.
ON THE WEB
For the Smith College, University of Toronto and George Mason University study: www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss1/art2/
For the Santa Clara University study: www.ratio.se/pdf/wp/dk_ls_diverse.pdf