Thursday, January 12, 2006

The low cost of intellectual diversity 

A second day of hearings in Pennsylvania on the question of liberal bias in its state universities took place Tuesday. The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber link) reports some highlights of a day that went better than the first, and for the second day running manages to miss some key points. FrontPage has a copy of the testimony of Temple English professor Steve Zelnick. In it he describes a political rally disguised as a "forum" titled "Dissent in America", the real purpose of which was to attack anyone that would question, well, the right of these campus radicals to hold their "forum". Having had speakers already pillory NAS President Stephen Balch, a student "asked whether Balch was part of the same movement that asserted intelligent design against real science and was assured by the panel that it was all of one piece." Nothing could be further from the truth, and if anyone had been there to provide intellectual diversity to this "forum", they might have heard as much. Moreover, when a letter writer to a local newspaper supporting the hearings, she was called out by the spokeswoman of the Temple Women's Study Program to identify her husband. Prof. Zelnick writes,

I trust this group would normally find such a demand abhorrent. But perhaps where group advocacy is involved, standards of truth and value are secondary to the end in view. This style of combat represents a powerful problem for an institution of learning and honest inquiry.
None of this made the Chronicle story. The Philadelphia papers, by my Google search, do not report any of the second day of testimony.

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, provided in my view the best testimony of the day. She emphasized the recent study ACTA published (I reported it here) in which 49% of students at the top 50 schools "said their professors frequently injected political comments into their courses, even if the comments had nothing to do with the subject." See Appendix A of that last link for additional survey questions, 29% strongly or somewhat agreed that "On my campus, some courses present social and political issues in an unfair and one-sided manner" while the same percentage felt "
they have to agree with the professor�s political or social views in order to get a good grade." This from a sample where only 13% of students described themselves as conservative, and only 11% of students were majoring in political science. (10% were in biology and 8% in engineering.)

In comments on Tuesday's post on the first day of the Temple hearings, "Junior Bear", a Temple economics major, related how this matters: He's retaking a class.

I only did about half of the assignments and failed to turn in the other half simply because I could not stomach the topics I was instructed to write about. I was expecting (for some reason) a more traditional final exam to save my grade. I had no such luck.

The final exam was a take-home 12 page take-down of Walmart. In the last class of the semester, the professor played the movie "The High Cost of Low
Prices," to help with the assignment ostensibly.

While I claim that my low grades on a few of the papers I indeed turned in were due to the contentious nature of my writings--I couldn't help myself--there is not much here to hang a charge of restricting my free-speech rights. However, I do accuse the professor of poor taste.

He's too kind. I think the professor is guilty of exactly the bias addressed by Zelnick, Neal, David Horowitz and others. There was every opportunity to provide balance in the form of an alternative film that would have shown WalMart in a more positive light. Why not? How much effort does it really take to provide some balance?

In her full remarks in hearings Tuesday (which ACTA has posted) Neal noted the American Council on Education's statement last September that they were going to do something about intellectual diversity, but that her group's survey of 30 signatories found not one instance of action on the statement.

Why, then, is it so hard for universities to take similar steps when it comes to intellectual diversity? Our colleges and universities are filled with offices and administrators whose entire job is to foster a diversity of backgrounds�on the grounds that a diversity of backgrounds will provide a diversity of viewpoints essential to a strong liberal education. If diversity of views is the educational holy grail, then what is the academy afraid of?

You and I have heard or read the testimony of a number of peakers already in the course of these hearings and, quite frankly, they are simply in denial that there is a problem. They have said, in effect, that they are not going to do anything. Bob O�Neill said yesterday continue to trust us. You have to make it clear that this is not acceptable. It would not be acceptable if they problem were racism; it would not be acceptable if the problem were gender discrimination. It is not acceptable when the problem is political harassment and viewpoint discrimination.

UPDATE: I read that Horowitz' own testimony went poorly. I have never advocated for ABOR, and having watched Horowitz in action I will attest that his methods rely on a good bit of bombast. He's not the best representative for the cause of intellectual diversity, but we already knew that. This cause is too important to have it tarred by Horowitz' inaccuracies in his testimony; he needs to make clean his record by documenting all those stories of liberal bias he claims to be true, or retract them.