Tuesday, January 6, 2004

DENVER — Kirk Hamm considers himself a liberal, but he’s been stunned by what he sees as pervasive discrimination against conservative students and faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

During his six years on campus, Mr. Hamm says he’s watched professors spend class time blasting Republicans. He’s seen student groups denied funding to bring conservative speakers to campus. Faculty members have told him privately that hiring a conservative professor would be “next to impossible.”

“Critical thought and debate are no longer taught. Students learn rather to keep quiet and agree with whatever message the professor is preaching,” said Mr. Hamm, graduate student at CU Boulder, who spoke at a Dec. 18 state legislative hearing here. “This is not education, but indoctrination.”

Stories such as Mr. Hamm’s reinforce a belief by conservatives: that universities have become hotbeds of left-wing ideology hostile to opposing views and those who hold them. After years of complaining, some Colorado conservatives are trying to do something about it.

When the state General Assembly convenes tomorrow, Colorado Republicans are expected to introduce the nation’s first legislation aimed at combating political bias at state institutions of higher learning. Several other states are expected to follow with similar legislation, according to David Horowitz, author of the Academic Bill of Rights, an eight-point manifesto calling for universities to hire faculty, offer tenure and evaluate students without regard to their political or religious beliefs.

In Colorado, the movement comes after an investigation by Senate President John Andrews, who last fall asked the state’s 29 universities to detail their antibias policies. His probe found that all the universities have a process in place to address bias-related grievances from students, professors and job applicants.

The problem is, few people know about it. Mr. Andrews’ solution: a campus information campaign, complete with posters and handbooks that advise students of their rights.

“Students are not aware of policies that stop a professor from launching a harangue against the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights or requiring them to write anti-President Bush letters to the White House,” Mr. Andrews said. “We need a bright-line test to let everyone know what the policies are.”

At the same time, the idea is likely to appeal to Republicans who prefer less government to more.

“I’d prefer this [proposal] rather than trying to put into statute a definition of academic freedom and mandate that a grievance procedure would include the following steps,” Mr. Andrews said. “That’s very cumbersome.”

Whatever form such legislation takes, Republicans can expect strong opposition from those who see the issue as a waste of the legislature’s time.

Mike Huttner, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Progressive Network, said the legislature’s attention could be better focused addressing the financial crisis at the state’s universities. At a Dec. 17 press conference, Colorado college and university presidents announced that their systems would go bankrupt by 2010 without more state funding.

“We’re having massive budget cuts at every university, and yet John Andrews is on this witch hunt,” Mr. Huttner said. “Higher-education presidents are really starting to resent it. The more time he spends on this and the less time on budget cuts, the more he’s going to get hammered for not focusing on more important issues.”

He called the Dec. 18 legislative hearing on academic bias “a bunch of anecdotal nonsense.” The hearing featured testimony from about a dozen students offering examples of liberal discrimination against conservatives in the curriculum, funding and grading.

Bob Nero, spokesman for the University of Colorado president’s office, said the testimony was disturbing because university officials hadn’t heard such complaints before. He said he would support an informational campaign telling students and faculty of their rights.

“At that hearing, we heard about these things for the first time,” Mr. Nero said. “It’s troubling to us because we have a procedure by which these things can be addressed. We certainly don’t want to see bias on the left or right.”

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