DENVER — Three years ago, David Horowitz came to Colorado to promote his newly inked Academic Bill of Rights, a plan the radical-turned-conservative activist said was needed to liberate students from an oppressive atmosphere of liberal groupthink at the nation’s universities.
Critics had scoffed at the assertion by Mr. Horowitz — who in the 1960s had been a prominent left-wing student activist — that freedom on 21st-century campuses was being crushed by a tyrannical regime of political correctness.
But as then-state Senate Majority Leader John Andrews listened to Mr. Horowitz over breakfast at the Brown Palace Hotel, he agreed the time was ripe for an intellectual revolution.
“We were finishing each other’s sentences, because this has been a concern for conservatives for such a long time,” Mr. Andrews recalled. “I started working on and researching legislation right away.”
A few months later, the Colorado legislature became the first to broker a deal with state universities on policies to protect students from political discrimination.
Since then, the Academic Bill of Rights, which says students should be graded and faculty should be hired and promoted without regard to their political or religious beliefs, has inspired the introduction of legislation in 18 states. Ohio and Tennessee struck deals with their universities on protecting academic freedom in lieu of legislation.
Meanwhile, Students for Academic Freedom, the campus watchdog group founded by Mr. Horowitz, has established chapters on more than 150 campuses. Student governments at a dozen universities have approved resolutions supporting the Academic Bill of Rights.
In April, Princeton University became the first institution of higher learning to pass a version of the Student Bill of Rights by a vote of the entire student body, surprising even Mr. Horowitz, who had no hand in the election.
“I didn’t engineer that. They took the Academic Bill of Rights I designed, made their own Student Bill of Rights and got it passed,” said Mr. Horowitz, who visited Princeton shortly after the plebiscite. “That shows it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Of course, it hasn’t all been good news. A well-known conservative writer and activist, Mr. Horowitz was never the most popular guy on campus, and the academic freedom movement has cemented his status as a persona non grata.
Demonstrators greet Mr. Horowitz’s every college appearance. At Duke University, associate professor Diane Nelson urged students to pull off their T-shirts to protest his March 7 speech. During a talk last year at Butler University in Indiana, he was hit in the face with a pie.
For all his success in raising the issue before state legislatures, no state has actually approved an academic freedom bill, despite the flurry of hearings and committee votes.
That is fine with Mr. Horowitz. The strategy of taking the issue to the legislatures was aimed at focusing attention on the issue, with the hope that universities would take up the gauntlet themselves and not on force-feeding diversity by statute.
“The agenda was always to force university administrators to pay attention, because there’s nobody to hold them accountable,” Mr. Horowitz said.
Still, the tactic has backfired with some small-government Republicans.
“The left knows there’s a battle on, and they’re in it,” Mr. Horowitz said. “Conservatives are still hung up on this legislation thing — they don’t want to do anything that requires legislation. It’s going to take a little time.”
The left fights back
Mr. Horowitz’s success with state legislatures has caught the attention of the left. The Center for American Progress, funded by Democratic billionaire George Soros, last year started Campus Progress, which follows the conservative movement at universities.
In February, a coalition of teachers unions and civil-liberties groups, including the center, founded Free Exchange on Campus, an organization designed to counter Mr. Horowitz and his quest.
Jamie Horwitz, who acts as a spokesman both for Free Exchange on Campus and the American Federation of Teachers, said the opposition was slow to react because “we dismissed it at first as the rantings of an ideologue.”
“But when the states starting proposing legislation, starting with Colorado, we decided to get involved,” Mr. Horwitz said. “We’ve tried to raise awareness about what’s really going on here.”
On its face, few would disagree with the Academic Bill of Rights, a two-page document that outlines principles protecting the free-inquiry and free-speech rights of professors and students while stressing the importance of intellectual diversity.
It says that professors should use their class time for education — not indoctrination — and that neither the political nor religious beliefs of students and faculty should be a factor in grades or promotion.
Despite the document’s political neutrality, critics fear that if it becomes state law, it will be used as a hammer to promote conservative thought and squelch liberal dissent.
“I think what they’re doing is curtailing academic freedom,” said Adam Jentleson, policy and advocacy manager of Campus Progress. “I don’t think they’re really making that much progress because every state that’s considered it has either voted it down or referred it to committee.”
In 2003, the American Association of University Professors condemned the Academic Bill of Rights as “a grave threat to academic freedom.” Last year, however, the organization was one of 27 higher-education groups to sign a statement endorsing “intellectual pluralism,” grievance procedures for students and other tenets of the document.
“That was pretty huge for us,” said Sara Dogan, president of Students for Academic Freedom. “They never would have done that if we hadn’t pointed out the problems and asked them to do something about it. Unfortunately, their member organizations [universities] haven’t picked up on it.”
Indeed, university professors have been the document’s biggest critics, arguing that the cure is worse than the purported disease. Already, they say, the debate has created a climate of self-censorship on campus as professors increasingly steer clear of politically charged topics, such as global warming.
“Wouldn’t it be worse to have laws that restrict free speech in the classroom?” Mr. Horwitz said.
Professors stay silent
Most professors aren’t the all-powerful gods that they’re made out to be, he said, noting that only one-third of university faculty are tenured.
“What I hear more and more is that the majority of faculty are afraid to speak their views because they have no protection,” Mr. Horwitz said.
Critics also insist that the problem isn’t as bad as the academic freedom movement claims, despite hundreds of examples ranging from professors who routinely bash Republicans in class to those who penalize students for expressing conservative views.
At the Students for Academic Freedom conference in April, however, Mr. Horwitz said many of the horror stories boiled down to students disgruntled over bad grades.
“I went to the conference and listened to a handful of students. Most of the time it was, ‘I’m active in conservative politics, and I got a professor I didn’t like and got a bad grade, and it’s because he was biased,’” said Mr. Horwitz.
“Where’s the evidence? This raises questions in higher education when it starts to look like a witch hunt.”
Not so, says Pennsylvania state Sen. Gibson Armstrong. After legislators held five hearings at state universities to gauge academic freedom, wrapping up May 31, Mr. Armstrong said he’s convinced there’s “a serious problem.”
“They [critics] point to one case that turned out to be not true,” said Mr. Armstrong.
“But I’ve got a lot of these stories and some of them have to be true. It’s hypocritical — if there were one case of a problem with gender or racial diversity, the university would be apoplectic.”
In fact, he said, that did happen. At Penn State University, there was a campuswide uproar after several black students received racist e-mails in 2001. It was later discovered the e-mails were sent from a computer lab at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“They spent $10 million to stop a problem that wasn’t even theirs. Here we report numerous problems with diversity of thought, and they turn a blind eye. It’s a double standard,” he said.
In March, the Pennsylvania House passed academic freedom language in an amendment to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, now pending in the Senate.
Churchill ignites a firestorm
To those who ask for evidence of liberal bias in academia, Mr. Horowitz has two words: Ward Churchill. The University of Colorado ethnic-studies professor transformed the debate in February 2005, when it was publicized that he wrote an essay comparing victims of the September 11 terrorist attack to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
“Churchill is huge,” Mr. Horowitz said. “I don’t think this movement would have happened without Ward Churchill. I know I wouldn’t have written ‘The Professors’ if it hadn’t been for Ward Churchill.”
The specter of the long-haired, chain-smoking, research-faking, America-bashing Mr. Churchill molding impressionable young minds turned Mr. Horowitz’s pet project into a national sensation almost overnight. Suddenly, it became difficult to argue that liberal bias on campus was the product of an overheated right-wing imagination.
Nowhere was his influence greater than in Colorado, where Mr. Churchill literally rescued the movement. After the Democrats took back the legislature in November 2004, state Sen. Bob Hagedorn introduced a bill that would have erased the state’s groundbreaking Memorandum of Understanding with the state universities on academic freedom.
A few weeks later, the Churchill story broke, and Mr. Hagedorn, a Democrat, withdrew the bill.
“Everything changed,” recalled Mr. Andrews, now a fellow with the Claremont Institute. “Churchill became the poster boy for abuse in the classroom and destroyed whatever chance Hagedorn thought he had to pass this protective layer on university professors.”
The publicity gave Republicans an unexpected bonus issue on the education front. Whether academic freedom has the political mojo to sway voters will be tested this year in Maine.
As vice chairman of the Maine Republican Party, Dan Schuberth is on a mission to elect Republicans to the state House, where they trail Democrats by just one seat, and academic freedom may be the issue that gets him there.
“This is something people are talking about, on talk radio, on the street, in the papers,” Mr. Schuberth said. “I think it’s a winning issue for us, to be honest. It’s playing well, and any candidate who talks about academic freedom is going to win support.”
Last month, the Maine Republican Party became the first in the nation to add academic freedom language to its platform. The decision came after an academic freedom bill failed by one vote in the state House by a straight party-line vote.
Calls for the legislation came after a stir over liberal bias at Bates College. In February 2004, a Bates staffer accidentally copied an e-mail back to the College Republicans calling them a “bunch of thugs” for sponsoring a seminar on conservative politics.
In the ensuring outcry, the Bates student government passed a resolution calling for an Academic Bill of Rights. The staff member apologized and was reprimanded.
In May 2005, during legislative hearings on academic freedom, a Bowdoin College student testified that his early Christian literature professor had thrown a Bible to the floor on the first day of class.
The events created a political climate ripe for the Academic Bill of Rights.
“It’s phenomenal. It’s the archetypal grass-roots campaign,” said Mr. Schuberth.
“It’s just common sense, and Maine people are all about common sense,” Mr. Schuberth said. “When you talk to Maine people about what they want for their kids, one thing they want is to be able to send them to college without having them indoctrinated.”
Maine Republicans have vowed to introduce another academic freedom bill if they win the House in November. Mr. Schuberth is confident that the state will ultimately approve such legislation, as long as the unthinkable doesn’t happen.
“Heaven forbid we get a Republican professor in there who insists Ronald Reagan was the greatest president ever and [Franklin Roosevelt] was a communist,” said Mr. Schuberth.