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Dangerous Minds?

Photo illustration: Wayne Armstrong and Jim Good

Toss the hot button terms “academic freedom” and “liberal bias” into a room full of academics, political pundits and special interest representatives, and here’s what happens: Once the stomping, vitriol, lobbing of sound bites and seemingly instinctive pitching of articles, books, op-eds, papers, reports, speeches, studies, TV appearances and Web sites dies down, a fair amount of consensus — often in surprising areas — begins to emerge.

Yes, many say, academic freedom has value and should be protected. Yes, they agree, liberal bias exists on most college campuses. But no, they add, liberal bias does not routinely interfere with the most important charge faculty and universities have: to educate students and prepare them to be productive citizens of the world.

So why, if there is truly more than surface agreement on these issues, can the terms academic freedom and liberal bias turn campuses into battlegrounds? Why are legislatures enmeshed increasingly in the struggle? Why, to quote the oft-quoted Rodney King, can’t we all just get along?

One definition, many points of view

Conflicts over academic freedom are nothing new. As long as there’s been formal schooling, there’ve been disputes over who teaches what, in what manner and to whom. What’s different in the New Millennium and what has changed, decade by decade, in the 67 years since the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) crafted the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure are the political and social lens through which faculty, administrators and the public view education.

“In the 1940s, there wasn’t too much talk about threats to academic freedom relating to sexual identity, nor were there concerns about sexual harassment being a challenge to academic freedom, in part because there were very few women in the academic profession at the time,” says Jonathon Knight, director of AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance.

As a result, the statement’s broad definition of academic freedom — autonomy in research and publication of research results and freedom in the classroom to discuss the subject at hand (though, it cautions, “teachers … should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject”) — is generally accepted. What riles people up is the manner in which faculty and campuses exercise or restrict the freedom to which the statement refers.

A major problem these days, says DU Public Policy Professor Dick Lamm, is the residual impact of social activism of the ’50s and ’60s.

“Academic freedom was compromised by the excess of thinking that grew out of the civil rights movement,” Lamm says. “What started to be a necessary and overdue and welcome social movement to bring women and minorities more into all roles in society segued into the point where we made it improper to use the word ‘niggardly’ and hundreds of other words. We started speech codes. We objected to a whole bunch of lines of inquiry, for instance out-of-wedlock births, the role of culture in the success rates of people, and study of IQ differences.

“Political correctness grew out of a laudatory effort for inclusion, and it ended up having a certain stultifying impact on most American campuses,” Lamm says. “It caused a whole clutch of people on campuses to say you should be expelled if you called a woman a chick — which I think, however distasteful, is well within people’s speech rights.”

In 2003, Lamm submitted an essay on the impact of ethnicity and culture on success rates in American society to The Source — the University of Denver’s monthly campus newsletter — which declined to publish it. (University administrators say the essay was turned down because the newsletter’s faculty opinion section was discontinued after a six-month test run; Lamm counters that the essay was rejected because it was “politically incorrect.”)

“Can anyone deny that Jewish and Asian cultures produce greater success rates than other cultures? I think there’s a cultural relativism on this campus that all cultures are not only to be respected, but they’re all equal,” Lamm says. “It made me so mad, I wrote a book about it.”

Two Wands, One Nation: An Essay on Race and Community in America, was published in 2006. The dedication reads, “To the University of Denver: May you come to understand that on a college campus, ‘too controversial’ is not the answer to anything, ever.”

David Horowitz, author of The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, sits to Lamm’s right on the political spectrum. He says academic freedom and freedom of speech in the classroom are not synonymous.

“If a preacher goes to the pulpit on Sunday and says God does not exist, he’ll probably be looking for a job on Monday,” Horowitz says. “If a professor has the right to go into a classroom and say anything that pops into his or her head, then an astronomy professor could teach astrology as though it were scientific fact. Obviously, there has to be an academic standard.”

Does this mean controversial subjects should be avoided or that interdisciplinary departments such as women’s studies or ethnic studies, which Horowitz derides, should be closed? DU Faculty Senate President Dean Saitta, an anthropology professor who’s one of the 101 academics listed in the Horowitz book, says it does not.

“Maybe we need to clarify what ‘controversial matter’ really is and perhaps loosen up on that guideline that says you shouldn’t introduce controversial matter that has no bearing on the subject of study,” Saitta says. “To me, academic freedom is about crossing boundaries. It’s about pushing the envelope. I worry that if those 1940s guidelines are interpreted too literally or too technically, they will keep professors from crossing boundaries — and that’s what produces creative teaching and research.

“That’s the beauty of the American university,” Saitta adds. “We’re recognized worldwide as being leaders in creative thinking.”

DU: Liberal, yet conservative

After inspecting the party affiliation of DU faculty registered to vote in primary elections, Horowitz concluded that almost 100 percent of University faculty whose records were pulled were liberals because they were registered Democrats.

“A rough gauge of what constitutes liberal bias, but a pretty reliable one, is party affiliation,” Horowitz says. “Liberal perspective can almost always be identified with the Democratic Party.”

He adds, however, that his study did not show a correlation between party affiliation and the manner in which faculty conduct research, manage their coursework or deal with students in the classroom. “That wasn’t what the study was designed to show,” Horowitz says.

Instead, he believes the skew toward Democrats brings the University’s hiring practices into question.

“If we have a deeply divided culture and 98 percent of the faculty are on one side of the culture war, that means they’re hiring people on the basis of their political views. It couldn’t happen randomly,” Horowitz charges.

DU sophomore business major Erica Castelo, state secretary for the Colorado College Republicans, has a different perspective. “I’d say arguably in the teaching profession, regardless of what school you’re at, you’re looking at about 90 to 95 percent of the teachers [who] are liberal,” Castelo says. “The teaching profession attracts a more ideological crowd who tend to be left-wing. That’s how it happened. It’s just a profession that a lot of liberals find appealing. There are conservatives as well, but I think it’s more appealing [to liberals] because it’s more expressive than other professions.”

Nonetheless, Castelo says DU has “a fairly conservative campus” where faculty “do a fair job of being fair and balanced.”

But walking that tightrope isn’t what all students want.

“From what I’ve noticed, DU professors are balanced — if anything, I’d say almost a little too balanced,” says senior political science major Jeff Graves, president of the DU College Democrats. “Sometimes I wish they had more freedom to talk about their personal opinions so they didn’t feel as though they had to be politically correct all the time.”

“My experience is that my best students in anthropology have been ones that opposed my views,” Saitta says. “I’m an evolutionist. A lot of times I will get anti-evolutionist students in the classroom. I’ve created an environment where they get to challenge me, and most wind up doing very well.”

Nonetheless, he believes a certain level of self-censoring is present on campus.

“I will say that, over the last couple of years, I’ve been more careful about what I say in the classroom. I edit before I speak much more than I used to. Sometimes I think, shame on me for doing that. That’s not what academic freedom is all about. I shouldn’t be doing edits of my thoughts in the classroom,” Saitta says.

Dean Saitta

What is academic freedom? According to Dean Saitta (pictured), it's "the right of faculty members to research and publish truth as they see fit, without external interference but within certain constraints. We have to be faithful to the historical record, to empirical reality. We can't just make stuff up."

“I don’t think it’s at a crisis stage, but students could suffer if professors start self-censoring because they don’t want to be complained about.”

AAUP’s Knight says this is a particular concern for adjunct faculty, a group he says accounts for 46-47 percent of the 1.2 million professors on college and university campuses in the United States.

“By being part-time, they can never enjoy secure protection for their academic freedom,” Knight says. “If faculty work under conditions where their appointments are so insecure, which is typical for most part-time faculty, understandably their willingness to speak out in the classroom, in their research, [and] in their commentary about university or department policies is almost always going to be constrained by the worry that they might upset somebody who has the authority to tell them they’re not coming back next September.”

According to DU Provost Gregg Kvistad, a correlation, direct or indirect, between high numbers of adjunct faculty and threats to academic freedom is “an interesting logical possibility.”

“But I don’t see evidence of it,” Kvistad says. “Adjunct faculty are hired for their teaching, not their research, creative work or service. There are other — more compelling in my view — reasons to limit the number of adjunct faculty in many disciplines in a university. Usually, students are served best when taught by full-time appointed faculty members who are invested in the institution and are consistently available for mentoring/advising.”

Kvistad says adjunct faculty at DU are not hired to conduct research, scholarship, or creative work, nor are they hired solely for budgetary reasons. Instead, in professional areas such as music performance, law and business, “some adjunct faculty teaching is exactly what is needed in the classroom.”

Judging DU

Today, in the looming shadows of 9-11, the Iraq war, Ward Churchill, political scandals and the ’08 presidential campaign, academic freedom is the recipient of renewed focus by advocates from the left and from the right, from outside campuses and within. Whether you believe that attention will salvage academic freedom or savage it often depends on your political point of view.

But at DU, academic freedom appears to be holding its own.

Dick Lamm

What is academic freedom? According to Dick Lamm (pictured), it's "the freedom to teach and inquire wherever one's scholarship leads one." Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“It is working well in my estimation. It works when people freely pursue their scholarly and pedagogical work to the best of their ability, and I believe that occurs on the DU campus,” Kvistad says. “The University practices [academic freedom] in virtually all of its pedagogical and research activities. To my knowledge, no one measures it at DU. The entire academic community at the University protects it.”

“I don’t want to take my particular run-in, where I think academic freedom was not fully honored, and turn that into a broad indictment against the University of Denver,” Lamm says. “Nobody has tried to interfere in any way with my teaching or scholarship. I think, overall, the University of Denver educates our students well. We educate them as opposed to indoctrinate them. There is a liberal bias on this campus as there is on all others, but I cannot see where it particularly interferes with our overall mission to educate students well.”

Castelo believes that there is “always room for improvement” and would do so, in part, by changing the way faculty retain their jobs.

“I don’t necessarily agree with tenure because I think teachers should be evaluated based on how they’re teaching from year to year and not necessarily given an open forum for 10 years to have their position at the University,” Castelo says. “That potentially adds to their ability to be more free in the classroom with regard to what they feel and what they think.”

Graves, on the other hand, would prefer more dynamic interaction.

“It’s fundamental to the idea of academic freedom and the free circulation of ideas that there is free expression of not only scientific ideas but also the ideas and opinions that often come from the soft sciences,” he says. “In the spirit of academic freedom, it’s necessary to take into account all types of opinions from all ranges of the spectrum.”

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