Federal proposal targets opinionated profs

A new bill in Congress aiming to add political diversity to university classrooms is causing controversy among academics.

Included in the 2005 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, to be voted on by the House and Senate this fall, is an amendment establishing an “Academic Bill of Rights” meant to maintain an ideological balance in class discussions.

The bill seeks to keep political discussions out of subjects in which they have no place and ensure that students hear “dissenting viewpoints” in the classroom. Opponents call the measure redundant and unnecessary.

The measure is the brainchild of Students for Academic Freedom, an advocacy group founded by conservative commentator David Horowitz. The group said it aims to get schools to take a second look at what they see as a growing political militancy among college professors.

“A student has the right not to be bombarded with extraneous political material in the classroom,” said Sara Dorgan, national campus director for the group. “If they’re taking a French class, they shouldn’t constantly be hearing about the war in Iraq and why it’s evil.”

Dogan said that while nearly all universities have policies meant to uphold academic freedom, most do not go far enough to protect students whose opinions challenge that of their professors and peers, and such legislation is needed to let colleges know what steps should be taken.

“Sometimes schools will have very specific language (about academic freedom), but it’s hidden away in the teachers’ guidelines,” she said. “This explicitly states that political views will have no effect whatsoever on faculty or students.”

But many in the academic community said the measure is counterproductive. Mark Smith, director of government relations for the American Association of University Professors, said the legislation attempts to inject politics into parts of academia where it does not belong.

“In a legislative format, it’s a political intrusion into curriculum,” Smith said. “It sets up non-academic standards for balance and diversity in viewpoints that seem to be driven more by elections and political judgments.”

Smith said that while he supports diversity in classroom discussions, it is not the government’s place to dictate what that means, and he fears the bill could encourage ideological debates in course subjects such as math and engineering – exactly what the measure seeks to counter.

Conservatives have long complained of a liberal bias in academic instruction, citing reports that show most professors to be left-leaning.

Congress first stepped into the debate two years ago when Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., proposed a similar piece of legislation that was struck down in committee.

Under the urgings of Horowitz’s group, the House and Senate have both considered the issue again this year as they prepare to renew the Higher Education Act.

Similar measures have been taken up by 15 state legislatures in the past year, but most have failed.

The House version of the bill has already picked up support from key Republican lawmakers, including Education Committee Chairman John Boehner of Ohio, and it is expected to pass with relative ease.

Both critics and advocates of the proposal are quick to point out that the bill has no statutory consequences and amounts to a government-endorsed set of suggestions.

But proponents believe the “bill of rights” can be a catalyst for change by just shedding light on the issue.

“I think it has an impact by just including this in the legislation,” Dogan said. “It makes the universities think a lot about it and maybe makes them realize that they’re being negligent in not protecting academic freedom sufficiently.”

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