Monday, March 07, 2005

ABoR: Good policy, bad law 

I hope you caught the 1pm hour of Saturday's NARN show to hear the discussion of the Academic Bill of Rights, because if you read the newspapers you won't learn anything about what is in it. And anyone discussing it in Minnesota is still discussing a possibility: there's no bill yet introduced into the legislature.

Not that you could tell from Laura Billings' sneering column yesterday.
The so-called "Academic Bill of Rights" she introduced this week would prevent professors at publicly funded colleges or universities from expressing their personal, political or ideological beliefs in their classrooms.
That's a lie on two scores: No bill, and if it follows the model bill the Students for Academic Freedom offer there's is no prevention of professors speaking their beliefs in the classroom. Yet all you hear is that these people want to shut down ABoR. For example, AAUP is protesting the bill in Ohio.
Our academic freedom is under attack. The national campaign for an "Academic Bill of Rights" has made its way to Ohio in the form of Ohio Senate Bill 24. The bill would, among other things, outlaw "persistent" discussion of controversial topics. The bills authors have cynically distorted much of the rhetoric from our own "Red Book," the founding collection of documents on academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure. The AAUP therefore has a particular duty to respond.

With your help, we can put an end to SB24 and return to the real issue--state funding of higher education.
And Billings again:
This is because the whole point of a college education is to develop those tiny muscles in the back of the brain pan that focus on discernment � distinguishing between different points of view, weighing the weight of opposing logic and deciding which worldview best defines the direction you want to go.
Great, but tell me what is in the model legislation -- which is all you have because there is no bill yet introduced -- disallows this? Here's the closest plank to what Billings could refer:
Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate. While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.
So there's a load of misinformation here, but it's not just the DFL's alleluia chorus who can't wait to tag anything Michele Bachmann does with a series of smears, especially desirous to soften her up before her U.S. Congressional campaign. Their behavior is quite easy to explain. But there's more to this than that.

For truth be told, ABoR is actually a bad idea, and center-right bloggers who want to help keep Democrats a minority party for years to come would do well to keep clear of it.

The question for me comes down to this: Do you want judges and legislators deciding what is �appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study� or do you want professionals? Obviously you want the latter, but it requires that we behave like professionals. We are reaping the whirlwind for allowing ourselves to be cowed by political correctness and cries of McCarthyism from evaluating whether faculty are behaving professionally. The courts have been very reluctant to impose their judgment of professionalism on us, but may only continue to do so as long as they see we can police ourselves. Having a statement like ABoR in the student handbook would be evidence that we can.

If we are to have the individual independence described in the document while consuming taxpayer resources to deliver higher education, there must be some mechanism that guards against abuse. If not faculty (or their unions) then who? Who will speak for protection of student rights? Whom would you prefer do so? Campus liberals may think students are protected, but we have ample evidence of conservative students at SCSU being attacked for supporting gun rights, Israeli self-determination, or traditional gender roles.

I understand conservative anger at campuses, but use of the law to get a good policy put in place is wrong. Conservative faculty need to think hard about how to get these protections for students put in place.

If we don�t do it, it�s going to be done to us. It is our job to police ourselves. It�s not the government�s job. But you don�t have to be a libertarian to realize that government seeks to expand its influence when it�s given half a reason to.

Meanwhile, government, if you want to stop this stupidity on campus, there's a much better idea than passing academic bills of rights. To paraphrase Eddie Murphy from Trading Places, if you really want to get universities' attention, take their money away.