- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2004


At the University of North Carolina, three incoming freshmen sued over a reading assignment they say offends their Christian beliefs.

In Colorado and Indiana, a national conservative group publicized student accusations of left-wing bias by professors. Faculty get hate mail and are pictured in mock “wanted” posters.

The episodes differ in important ways, but all touch on an issue of growing prominence on college campuses.

Traditionally, clashes over academic freedom have pitted politicians or administrators against instructors who wanted to express their opinions and teach as they saw fit. But increasingly, it is students who are invoking academic freedom. They say biased professors are violating their right to a classroom free from indoctrination.

To many professors, there is a new and deeply troubling aspect to this latest chapter in the debate over academic freedom: Students are trying to dictate what they don’t want to be taught.

“Even the most contentious or disaffected of students in the ‘60s or early ‘70s never really pressed this kind of issue,” said Robert O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and former president of the University of Virginia.

Those behind the trend call it an antidote to the overwhelming liberal views of university faculties. But many educators worry that students just want to avoid exposure to ideas that challenge their core beliefs — an essential part of education.

Some also fear teachers will shy away from sensitive topics, or fend off criticism by “balancing” their syllabuses with opposing viewpoints, even if they represent inferior scholarship.

“Faculty retrench. They are less willing to discuss contemporary problems, and I think everyone loses out,” said Joe Losco, a professor of political science at Ball State University in Indiana, who has supported two colleagues targeted for purported bias. “It puts a chill in the air,” he said.

Conservatives say a chill is in order.

A recent study by Santa Clara University researcher Daniel Klein estimated that among social science and humanities faculty members nationwide, Democrats outnumber Republicans by at least 7-to-1; in some fields the ratio is as high as 30-to-1.

Leading the latest movement is the group Students for Academic Freedom, with chapters on 135 campuses and close ties to David Horowitz, a one-time liberal campus activist turned conservative commentator.

Instructors “need to make students aware of the spectrum of scholarly opinion,” Mr. Horowitz said. “You can’t get a good education if you’re only getting half the story.”

Conservatives say they are discouraged from expressing their views in class, and blackballed from graduate school slots and jobs.

“I feel like [faculty] are so disconnected from students that they do these things and they can just get away with them,” said Kris Wampler, who recently identified himself as one of the students who sued the University of North Carolina. Now a junior, he objected when all incoming students were assigned to read a book about the Koran before they got to campus.

Efforts by him and others are having mixed results. At UNC, the students lost their legal case, but the university no longer uses the word “required” in describing the reading program for incoming students.

In Colorado, conservatives withdrew a legislative proposal for an “academic bill of rights” backed by Mr. Horowitz, but only after state universities agreed to adopt its principles.

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