Students’ academic freedom at risk

    Two years ago, I began tuning in to the growing debate raging across the nation concerning academic freedom on university and college campuses. That caused me to look into what is occurring in California public higher education. What did I find?

    Well, to borrow a line from the movie “Apollo 13” — “Houston, we have a problem.”

    In some instances, our public campuses are morphing into hotbeds of incivility, intolerance, lack of intellectual diversity, harassment, intimidation and breach of contract.

    At one UC campus, the course description for “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance” in Fall 2002 stated that “conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.”

    At one community college campus, students were given an extra-credit assignment by a professor in a required speech class. They were ordered to write letters to the President protesting the war in Iraq. Those who wrote letters praising the Iraq campaign or refused to actually mail their letters to the President’s office were denied credit for the assignment.

    At a CSU campus, a student posted a flier on the common-interest bulletin board of the Multicultural Center advertising a speech by the African-American author of a book that documents the author’s personal journey from “Berkeley militant to conservative businessman.” The flier contained the author’s name and photograph, the book’s title, and the time and location of the speech. The student distributor was arrested, tried for and convicted of disruption and threatened with expulsion.

    At another community college campus, a professor tried to intimidate an 18-year-old Kuwaiti Muslim freshman into seeing a psychological therapist because the student wrote a pro-American essay in class. According to the student, the professor did not grade the essay and threatened to visit the dean of international admissions, who has the power to take away student visas, to ensure that the student received regular psychological treatment.

    The above examples represent the “tip of the iceberg” of abuse instances in California’s higher education system.

    Most faculty members are responsible, courteous, professional educators, but a growing number — both liberal and conservative — run their classrooms as if managing little Abu Ghraibs.

    Some publicly humiliate students who offer dissenting opinions. Others employ a two-tiered grading system that punishes the GPA of those expressing alternate perspectives.

    Some students are victimized by trumped-up charges and campus kangaroo courts. Others are run out of town by stalkers and fear of physical violence.

    The American Association of University Professors has now abandoned its old statement of principles that reads, “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

    That’s how it should be, but it is increasingly not.

    I have introduced Senate Bill 5, the “Student Bill of Rights,” to help protect students in our public education system from harassment and abuse.

    The bill establishes standards of behavior that campuses would enforce with existing grievance and enforcement mechanisms. It treats all ideological perspectives the same. It merely protects students from mistreatment by professors who are abusing their positions of power and authority over students.

    If you have had a serious problem with a professor, let someone know. Contact your student government or faculty association. Encourage public forums to debate the issue.

    Log onto one of the various campus-monitoring Web sites, such as http://www.noindoctrination.org and http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org. And write your legislators!

    Our system works best when free speech is honored, minority rights are protected and mature civility holds sway. Of all places, the academy should be where truth is pursued — unencumbered by bigotry and double standards.

    Bill Morrow is a California state senator (R-38) and the author of California Senate Bill 5, the “Student Bill of Rights.”

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