AEI – Campus Bias Symposium
While we have focused on the case of Bill Felkner and Rhode Island College quite a bit, it is worth noting that the “phenomena” of campus bias is by no means restricted to our little corner of the nation. The American Enterprise Institute held a symposium on Monday (transcript can be found at AEI) on the topic. Stanley Kurtz at NRO received a report from a contact that provides a good summary of the views expressed by the panel. Most striking, however, was the stance taken by Roger Bowen of AAUP. According to Kurtz’s contact, Bowen stated:
1. It is no surprise that most faculty in social sciences are liberals, since those fields traditionally have been about questioning identity, writing “progressive” history, and other causes.
2. Among liberals, there is a tremendous range of opinion, and critics such as Klein are simplifying their ranks.
3. Outsiders haven’t the “expertise” to police the faculty. Professors have undergone rigorous training that makes us trust their judgment more than that of journalists and the public.
4. Folks such as David Horowitz are mounting an intimidation campaign. (Bowen recalled his own experience having his class visited in the early 80s by rabble-rousers at Accuracy in Academia).
5. Conservatives prefer going into business, while liberals have a stronger social bent.
6. Most students come into college with too many conservative prejudices and they need to be shaken up.
7. He has never heard of a hiring committee that asked a candidate about political affiliation.
8. Finally, he said, “So the faculty is Democrat. So what?”
David French of FIRE took him on, but Bowen resorted to circular debate tactics and would admit to nothing.
Incidentally, the AAUP has a different focus in the discussion of “Academic Freedom.” Whereas students and those outside of academia define academic freedom as: 1) being able to hear and voice a diverse set of opinions within the context of a given course and 2) not hearing ideological based opinions on subjects outside of the subject matter of a course, the AAUP, in a recent meeting on academic freedom, appeared more concerned with other things.
. . . three issues of concern to faculty and others in the academic community. The policy statements address corporate funding of academic research, background investigations on faculty, and academic freedom and electronic communications. For a summary of these policies, read our press release.
They also released a statement on the efforts by Students for Academic Freedom, comparing them to the John Birch society. While the rhetoric of this statement does indeed sound high-minded, one must remember that they disregard the very real power dynamic in the classroom.
The AAUP casts themselves as the less powerful in the academic/government relationship. They believe that the power of government, brought on by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush Administration, by intimidation and resource (both financial and documents) restriction, will stifle the willingness of academics to speak up and challenge the conventional wisdom. In this, they cast themselves as the weak half of a particular power dynamic.
In contrast, they are blind to a similar dynamic that occurs in the classroom. They fail to recognize, or outright ignore, that they hold the power over the students in the teacher/student dynamic. High-minded rhetoric about academic debate sounds good but it ignores the very real perspective of a student. Even if a student can challenge a professor in class without repercussions, it is naive to believe that a student will actually exercise such academic freedom. Rare is the student who will submit coursework arguing against the conventional scholarly wisdom on a hot-button issue, much less expecting that their work will get a fair reading. I don’t mean to impugn those professors who both have their biases and are responsible scholars who can divorce themselves from those biases when grading a paper based on its intrinsic scholarly quality. However, to expect students to believe that a professor can do such a thing is unreasonable. In school, we are generally taught to give the “right” answer, after all. It is a big leap to give an “answer” that is not “right” and expect to get a good grade for it.
As such, academic discourse on controversial subjects, whether germane to a particular course or not, is stifled. The result is a flawed belief among faculty and students that the majority of people on campus share the same opinion on a set of issues: silence equals consent. While groups like FIRE and SFAF can help, in the end it will be up to individual students, like Bill Felkner, to challenge the system, grades be damned. In the secular universities of modern day America, academic martyrdom may prove to be the only way to effect change. How’s that for post-modern irony?
ADDENDUM: Thomas Sowell has his own opinion on Academic Freedom withij the context of the Ward Churchill controversy:
However symptomatic Professor Churchill may be of what is wrong with academia today, his situation has nothing to do with academic freedom. His remarks that provoked so much controversy were not made in a classroom or even on campus.
There are no real grounds for firing him under current rules and practices — which tells you what is wrong with those rules and practices. Professor Churchill is protected by tenure rules that are a much bigger problem than this one man or this one episode. . .
Should a professor of accounting or chemistry be fired for using up class time to sound off about homelessness or the war in Iraq? Yes!
There is no high moral principle that prevents it. What prevents it are tenure rules that have saddled so many colleges with so many self-indulgent prima donnas who seem to think that they are philosopher kings, when in fact they are often grossly ignorant or misinformed outside the narrow confines of their particular specialty.
Over the years, the notion of academic freedom has expanded beyond autonomy within one’s academic field to faculty governance of colleges and universities in general. Thus professors decide whether the institution’s endowment can be invested in companies or countries that are out of favor among the anointed, or whether students will be allowed to join fraternities or the Reserve Officers Training Corps.
There is nothing in specialized academic expertise which makes professors’ opinions on issues outside their specialty any better than anyone else’s opinions. In no other institution — religious or secular, military or civilian — are people who make decisions that shape the institution unable to be fired when those decisions lead to bad results.
The combination of tenure and academic self-governance is unique — and explains much of the atmosphere of self-indulgence and irresponsibility on campus, of which Professor Ward Churchill is just one extreme example. Re-thinking confused notions of “academic freedom” is far more important than firing Professor Churchill and thereby turning a jackass into a martyr.