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Are the classrooms truly balanced?

As academic diversity is debated in Jefferson City, MU’s intellectual freedom comes into question.
Monday, February 26, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:48 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

The national debate over intellectual diversity arrives in Jefferson City on Tuesday, when the House Higher Education Committee is scheduled to take up a bill that would require Missouri universities to document efforts to protect students from political bias in the classroom.

The hearing on House Bill 213 has already been moved from its usual location to a larger room to accommodate lawmakers and other observers, which could include a television crew from Fox News, said committee chairman Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff.

“They expect a large audience,” Kingery said.

The House bill is similar to other proposed legislation around the country aimed at combating the perceived liberal bias on college campuses.

Much of this larger debate has been fueled by conservative pundit David Horowitz, who has championed an “academic bill of rights” to address what he calls “the overwhelmingly leftist content that is being fed to our college students today.”

Horowitz and others say their case has been bolstered by a number of studies that purport to prove that most college professors are liberal ideologues. One, by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in 2006, set out to determine “How Many Ward Churchills?,” a reference to the University of Colorado at Boulder professor who has blamed U.S. foreign policy for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

According to an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the study’s authors searched the Web sites of 48 prominent universities for “extremist rhetoric” or “tendentious opinion.” They concluded many of the classes offered at these universities, and the faculty who teach them, “are displaying an ideological slant that is frequently as uniform as it is severe.”

But John Lee, a higher education researcher at Bethesda, Md.-based research firm JBL Associates, said most of these studies don’t prove what they set out to prove. Lee, who was hired by the American Federation of Teachers to assess the research, said the studies failed to meet the threshold for academic inquiry.

“None of the studies really met all of those standards,” Lee said. “In the policy debate, if you’re going to claim that you have research support, you really should.”

Using the accepted standards — “the sort of thing you’d get in any graduate program on research methodology,” he said — Lee reviewed eight of the most recent studies and found, among other things, that they were too focused on elite private institutions. He also found that the researchers failed to examine a diversity of academic departments and fields of study — medicine or engineering, for example — which skewed the results.

But blaming faulty research for fueling the debate is only part of the problem, Lee said. Many lawmakers have been too quick to use the studies as definite and final evidence, a purpose for which they were never intended.

“To say that somehow there’s an imbalance — there’s no evidence in any of this that exists,” Lee said. “I don’t know what it would mean to see it.”

Indeed, two years ago, Pennsylvania legislators established a committee to examine bias claims. The committee heard testimony from university faculty members, as well as from David Horowitz, before presenting its findings to the full legislature in November. The report concluded that there was not ample evidence to prove a political bias on campuses and recommended that lawmakers refrain from passing a statewide academic freedom policy. The report also stated that existing policies were adequate to handle any problems over intellectual diversity that might arise.

The bill in the Missouri House — also known as the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act — does not require universities to take any specific steps to increase the diversity of viewpoints on campus. It would require each campus to submit an annual report to the General Assembly detailing the steps taken “to ensure intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas.”

The bill’s authors said such steps could include studies to assess the current state of intellectual diversity on campus; intellectual diversity issues in student course evaluations; and develop hiring, tenure, and promotion policies that protect individuals against “viewpoint discrimination.”

The report would then go to the General Assembly for review and also be posted on the university’s Web site. The report would be due to the General Assembly by Dec. 31, starting in 2008.

Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, who sponsored the bill, said the requirements of the proposed legislation are designed to give officials at individual universities to decide what is best for their campuses. An important concern, Cunningham said, is making sure students know who to contact if they have an academic freedom-related concern.

“They need to be notified that their grades cannot be affected by their opinions being expressed,” Cunningham said.

The bill was inspired by Emily Brooker, a Missouri State University student who sued the school for alleged violations of her First Amendment

rights. Brooker, a Christian, was assigned a project in a social work class to draft a letter to the Missouri General Assembly in support of gay adoption. She refused and was subject to a grievance hearing. With help from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group, Brooker sued. The college reached an out-of-court settlement with Brooker last November.

“I’ve heard these kinds of stories for years,” Cunningham said. “This is not an isolated incident.”

Cathy Scroggs, MU’s Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, said she has received only one complaint related to academic freedom in the six years she’s been at the university. Coincidentally, the complaint was prompted by a visit to MU by David Horowitz. Horowitz said that, before he even arrived in Columbia, students of MU biology professor Miriam Golomb told him that she had offered extra credit to protest his visit.

“And so I went to the class without the professor present and asked the class what had happened,” Scroggs recalled.

None of the students complained, she said. But concerned that they were apprehensive about speaking in front of their classmates, Scroggs gave the students her business cards and invited them to contact her. Scroggs said she didn’t hear from a single student.

Roger Worthington, an associate professor of education and MU’s Interim Chief Diversity officer, said that while proposed legislation such as HB 213 appears “relatively benign,” it could have unintended circumstances.

“I think a lot of people have concerns about how this type of legislation would negatively, rather than positively, affect academic freedom,” Worthington said.


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