Monday, August 08, 2005

Academic Freedom in the U.S.

( And here too maybe if we are really, really unlucky.)

This week Butterflies and Wheels discusses the current furore in the U.S. over academic freedom:
"All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives. No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs." Read the full article here.

While the bill that is specifically discussed is in the Colorado state legislature, many other states including Florida, Ohio, Georgia and Pennsylvania have either passed or are trying to pass such legislation.

So what is all the fuss about? Rights are good...right?

Well that depends on the content of the bill supporting/enforcing them. From what I can gather, the bill(s) seek to address what is perceived by many, such as Republican David Horowitz, as a 'liberal bias' in the faculties of universities around the country. The central claims are that conservatives, especially republicans are excluded from faculties, and that the alleged left wing bias that follows in teaching amounts to 'indoctrination' and/or discrimination, through biased grading. One detail of the legislation that is particularly worrying is the shifting of responsibility for academic fairness and freedom from faculty to government.

Projects that Horowitz has founded include 'Discover the Networks', a project that aims to monitor and publicise the relationships between prominent liberal figures and the political left, Arab organisations, and groups that allegedly condone terrorist actions.

Complaints from students seem to be that they object to there being not enough material supporting right-wing views being included in courses, that non-leftist views are ridiculed by lecturers and tutors, that a balanced treatment is not given to right leaning material and that students are unfairly receiving poor grades due to their political views conflicting with their marker's.
Were this all there was to it, the situation may not be quite so bad. But there seem to be cases where students have objected to material simply because they disagreed with it. A poor grade could be reviewed independently to check for bias, but Horowitz would claim that the left-wing bias is so endemic, that impartiality would be impossible in the current situation. It does not help that organisations such as the Students For Academic Freedom (founded by Horowitz) have sprung up, publicising complaints against academics, with no substantiating evidence. This group is also known for campaigning on campus against academics that are openly critical of the current President and are alledgedly connected to class disruptions, hate mail and smear campaigns.

Understandably, these developments have many philosophy and politics academics and lecturers very worried. The American Philosophers Association has been openly hostile towards the legislation, and has condemmed what they describe as the outbreaks of "Young Republican-sponsored vigilante action". They have advised their members to (amongst other things) try to maintain dialogue with complainants and try to maintain a professional and rational atmosphere. Read the APA's full statement here.

While harassment of students by teachers or biases marking is not excusable, is it fair to enforce a standard that one side of politics (the Republicans) deems to be 'unbiased' (check out the blatantly obvious irony), when some subject matter, and indeed some subjects and courses are irreducibly evaluative?

With any luck, we will never have to deal with such developments here. But an Australian version of the SAF could function just as well as a political tool against a so-called 'left-wing academia' here in the hands of the Coalition as it has for the Republicans.

I would encourage everyone to take a look at the links and see what they think of this. Are there some opinions that university academics should not be allowed to express to their classes, or is to legislate for this taking away a fundamental part of the critical process that occurs within universities and just a blatant attempt to quash political opposition in educational institutions?

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