Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Attacks on professors in Pennsylvania

I was reading the Sunday NY Times this weekend and noticed a letter to the editor that referenced an earlier article about the legislators in Pennsylvania. It also describes the broader national propaganda attacking "left-wing" professors, led by David Horowitz. Luckily, as the article explains, so far nothing has come of it except a lot of noise.

The letter was great--an MBA writing about her right-wing classmates and teachers--asking why no one was investigating their open bias and attacks on her.

The Times may sue me for copyright violation, but here is the article:

Professors' Politics Draw Lawmakers Into the Fray
Published: December 25, 2005

While attending a Pennsylvania Republican Party picnic, Jennie Mae Brown bumped into her state representative and started venting.

''How could this happen?'' Ms. Brown asked Representative Gibson C. Armstrong two summers ago, complaining about a physics professor at the York campus of Pennsylvania State University who she said routinely used class time to belittle President Bush and the war in Iraq. As an Air Force veteran, Ms. Brown said she felt the teacher's comments were inappropriate for the classroom.

The encounter has blossomed into an official legislative inquiry, putting Pennsylvania in the middle of a national debate spurred by conservatives over whether public universities are promoting largely liberal positions and discriminating against students who disagree with them.

A committee held two hearings last month in Pittsburgh and has scheduled another for Jan. 9 in Philadelphia. A final report with any recommendations for legislative remedy is due in June.

The investigation comes at a time when David Horowitz, a conservative commentator and president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, has been lobbying more than a dozen state legislatures to pass an ''Academic Bill of Rights'' that he says would encourage free debate and protect students against discrimination for expressing their political beliefs.

While Mr. Horowitz insists his campaign for intellectual diversity is nonpartisan, it is fueled, in large measure, by studies that show the number of Democratic professors is generally much larger than the number of Republicans. A survey in 2003 by researchers at Santa Clara University found the ratio of Democrats to Republicans on college faculties ranged from 3 to 1 in economics to 30 to 1 in anthropology.

Mr. Horowitz said he was pushing for legislation only because schools across the country were ignoring their own academic freedom regulations and a founding principle of the American Association of University Professors, which says schools are better equipped to regulate themselves without government intervention.

''It became apparent to me that universities have a problem,'' he said in an interview. ''And nothing was being done about it.''

Mr. Horowitz and his allies are meeting forceful resistance wherever they go, by university officials and the professors association, which argues that conservatives are overstating the problem and, by seeking government action, are forcing their ideology into the classroom.

''Mechanisms exist to address these glitches and to fix them,'' said Joan Wallach Scott, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and former chairwoman of the professors association committee on academic freedom, in testimony at the Pennsylvania Legislature's first hearing. ''There is no need for interference from outside legislative or judicial agencies.''

In a debate with Mr. Horowitz last summer, Russell Jacoby, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, portrayed Mr. Horowitz's approach as heavy-handed. ''It calls for committees or prosecutors to monitor the lectures and assignments of teachers,'' he said. ''This is a sure-fire way to kill free inquiry and whatever abuses come with it.''

So far, the campaign has produced more debate than action. Colorado and Ohio agreed to suspend legislative efforts to impose an academic bill of rights in favor of pledges by their state schools to uphold standards already in place. Georgia passed a resolution discouraging ''political or ideological indoctrination'' by teachers, encouraging them to create ''an environment conducive to the civil exchange of ideas.''

While comparable efforts failed in three other states, measures are pending in 11 others. In Congress, House and Senate committees passed a general resolution this year encouraging American colleges to promote ''a free and open exchange of ideas'' in their classrooms and to treat students ''equally and fairly.'' It awaits floor action next year.

Mr. Horowitz's center has spawned a national group called Students for Academic Freedom that uses its Web site to collect stories from students who say they have been affected by political bias in the classroom. The group says it has chapters on more than 150 campuses.

The student group has fielded concerns from people like Nathaniel Nelson, a former student at the University of Rhode Island and a conservative, who said a philosophy teacher he had during his junior year referred often to his own homosexuality and made clear his dislike for Mr. Bush.

Mr. Nelson, now a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, said in an interview that the teacher frequently called on him to defend his conservative values while making it clear he did not care for Republicans.

''On the first day of class, he said, 'If you don't like me, get out of my class,' '' Mr. Nelson said. ''But it was the only time that fall the course was being offered, and I wanted to take it.''

Marissa Freimanis said she encountered a similar situation in her freshman English class at California State University, Long Beach, last year. Ms. Freimanis said the professor's liberal bias was clear in the class syllabus, which suggested topics for members of the class to write about. One was, ''Should Justice Sandra Day O'Connor be impeached for her partisan political actions in the Bush v. Gore case?''

''Of course, I felt very uncomfortable,'' Ms. Freimanis, who is a Republican, said in an interview.

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are examining whether the political climate at 18 state-run schools requires legislation to ban bias. Mr. Armstrong said he discussed the issue in several conversations with Mr. Horowitz ''as an expert in the field'' before calling for the creation of a committee.

''But I don't know if his Academic Bill of Rights is necessary in Pennsylvania,'' Mr. Armstrong said in an interview. ''Before we have legislation to change a problem, we first have to determine whether the problem exists. If it does exist, the next question is, 'Is it significant enough to require legislation?' ''

''So the question I'm asking,'' he added, ''is, 'Do we have a problem in Pennsylvania?' ''

For now, the answer is unclear. While Mr. Armstrong said he had received complaints from ''about 50 students'' who said they were intimidated by professors expressing strong political views, Democratic members of the committee have called the endeavor a waste of time, and the Republican chairman, Representative Thomas L. Stevenson, seemed to agree.

''If our report were issued today,'' Mr. Stevenson said, ''I'd say our institutions of higher education are doing a fine job.''


Janine said...

I need some help understanding where you stand on the issues.

On one hand you say it should be OK for prof. to tell the students what their political views are. However, on the other hand you think that RA's should not hold bible studies in their place of residence.

Aren't you contradicting yourself? If not, please tell me what differences you see between the two?

Lake Winneblogo said...

Thanks for your question. I don't really think that there is any contradiction at all. See my comments above.

Clifton Snider said...

I would like to make a belated comment on my ex-student, Marissa Freimanis, whom Michael Janofsky quotes. As the instructor of the class Marissa Freimanis is referring to, I am tired of her lies about what happened in a freshman composition class which was supposed to deal with controversy. Yes, I made it clear on the first night of class in the context of explaining a syllabus that emphasized morality and spirituality as themes for the first three papers that I thought the Iraqi war immoral. I invited any students who disagreed to speak up. She and another student spoke up in support of Bush. Several other students spoke up to disagree with these two. In other words, I succeeded in starting a debate, however brief, on the issue. Apart from that first night and the showing of Fahrenheit 9/11 in preparation for a review of a film of the students' choosing, politics rarely came up.

Since the presidential election was scheduled that semester, I had the students watch one of the Bush-Kerry debates and write a paragraph on that, just as I had them write a paragraph on the Moore movie. And since at Cal State Long Beach composition instructors are expected to teach argument (which by definition deals with controversy), politics came up when we came to that paper. Apart from these instances, I am sure I referred to the election in passing, but the focus of the class was, as it always is, on writing--"prose," as Kelderman reports--not politics, as my former student claims.

After the first class meeting Ms. Freimanis almost immediately went to the web site of the David Horowitz-backed Students for Academic Freedom, to post an anonymous complaint which included homophobic comments about my reading list for the book review (students had a wide choice of topics, as they did for every essay). After right-wing commentators on the Internet picked up her story, she began signing her complaints with her own name and embellishing her story, which was already filled with so many falsehoods and misrepresentations I would have to write a long essay to correct them all. She has continued to impugn my integrity by claiming I was unfair to her in assessing her paragraph (which she later reported was an essay) on Fahrenheit 9/11, and she claimed on national TV that her grade on that paragraph destroyed her "straight-A record" (Journal Editorial Report, 23 September 2005).

It is time my ex-student stop lying about what happened in that class. She did not have a "straight-A record," and I have the grade book to prove that. Normally I would never discuss a student's grades in a public forum like this, but she has done her best to attack my integrity, and I will not sit by and let her do it. If the example of my class is the only evidence of liberal bias at Cal State Long Beach Ms. Freimanis can produce, then she had better stop whining, for she is lying about my treatment of her and her writing. There is no other way to put it.

Clifton Snider, Ph.D.
English Department
California State University, Long Beach