Conservatives push to counter liberal professors Mike Cronin
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 12, 2006 12:00 AM
For many students, college is an intellectual rite of passage.
The beliefs that students bring to the classroom often collide with what they learn. Professors push students to think critically.
But some Arizona lawmakers think that push has gone too far. They want to tame what they see as left-leaning professors at state universities who they contend wield an unhealthful influence over Arizona’s younger minds.
Their response is a string of proposals that opponents fear could quash academic freedom. The efforts reflect a nationwide trend being fueled by conservative activists.
In Arizona, the moves include:
• A bill enabling students to refuse assignments they find sexually offensive. It failed in March but compelled Arizona’s Board of Regents to pass a resolution supporting academic freedom and advance notice to students of a course’s content.
• An “Academic Bill of Rights,” which Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, plans to introduce next year. Pearce and other legislators hope to meet with David Horowitz, a national activist who lives in Los Angeles, for help in drawing up the bill, which they say would keep liberal bias out of the classroom.
• A law passed in the spring that requires schools to display the U.S. flag and Constitution in every classroom. It puts patriotic symbols in front of every professor and student.
The proposals reflect a distrust of professors among some ranking legislators on higher-education committees.
“University professors lean liberal and not conservative,” said Sen. Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, chairwoman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee. “They contribute to society accepting immoral behavior. (The classroom) is where they get to the mind.”
Gray said public universities typically do not provide examples of “what a good, normal family life is.”
Last school year, no student at Arizona’s three major universities filed a complaint saying professors imposed their views and values in class.
Still, allegations have come to light, one of which led to the bill on offensive coursework.
At Chandler-Gilbert Community College, a student was so offended last year by a book in Professor Bill Mullaney’s literature and film class that he asked for an alternative assignment.
The 1994 book, The Ice Storm by Rick Moody, deals with two suburban families in the 1970s that engage in sexual experimentation.
Mullaney refused to offer another assignment, saying he presented the syllabus on the first day of class. He told students some of the material might be offensive and that they could drop the class.
The student filed a grievance with the school. School officials rejected the student’s request, instead offering him another class. The student refused and took the matter to Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert.
Verschoor sponsored a bill that would have allowed university and community college students to refuse any assignment that depicts or describes sexual activity in a “patently offensive way.” The Senate defeated it 17-12. Public debate led the Board of Regents to pass its resolution.
‘Bill of Rights’
The most controversial attempt to influence college classrooms is Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights.
Lawmakers in 18 states have weighed resolutions supporting some form of the document. Georgia was the only state that approved one, although the university systems of Tennessee, Ohio and Colorado adopted policies that espoused its tenets.
Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, who heads two higher-education committees, said the bill to be proposed here next year will be based on Horowitz’s version.
“I have heard more and more over the years that there is less and less tolerance for conservative opinions,” she said.
Faculty members widely view the bill as an attempt to subvert academic freedom, the opposite of what Horowitz claims.
Wanda Howell, a University of Arizona professor and faculty chair, argues that the bill would put state government and university administration in charge of the classroom. Professors no longer would be in control of what or how they taught, or how they graded.
In the name of “academic diversity,” professors say, professors could be forced to censor certain materials.
Horowitz insists his Academic Bill of Rights is “viewpoint neutral.”
“It is to ensure that professors take a scholarly, academic approach in the classroom, so professors teach students how to think, not what to think,” Horowitz said. “It goes for right-wingers (too). It goes for anyone.”
Surveys support the common belief: Most professors are liberal.
A 2005 study by American and Canadian professors indicated that 72 percent of those teaching at U.S. colleges and universities identified themselves as liberal. Only 15 percent called themselves conservative.
Several students said professors’ liberal views tend to spill out in classrooms in subtle and overt ways. It can trigger lively debates but also intimidate some students.
Blake Rebling, 19, president of the UA College Republicans, said he typically doesn’t challenge his liberal professors’ opinions because they control his grades.
“I don’t want to risk going to law school over that,” the political science major said.
Several professors said instructors should present issues without personal bias and allow for a variety of viewpoints. Teachers should not impose their personal beliefs, and a grade should never depend on a student’s political opinion.
UA political science Professor John Willerton, who specializes in Russia and the former Soviet Union, sees that as the responsibility of the teacher. He grades students on the coherence of their work.
“I want people to think carefully about stereotypical thinking, conventional wisdom. Is the essay well-reasoned with a good introduction and conclusion, and does it have an argument I can find?”
But when Willerton does take a stance, he loves a good debate.
“I really respect a student who will challenge me,” he said. “I don’t want a toady. I don’t want someone who will mimic me.”
Ruth Jones, vice provost for academic programs and a political science professor at Arizona State University, said some professors may cross the line but she doesn’t think it’s widespread.
She sits on a standards committee that would handle the types of cases that conservatives say are rampant in today’s college classrooms. She has never had one.
“The question is: Are we dealing with reality or perception?” Jones said. “Is there a common denominator among students complaining? Sometimes, students are used (by others) to promote an agenda. We need to look at that.”