Pennsylvania’s Encounter with the “Academic Bill of Rights”
By James Bergquist
Co-chair, Academic Freedom Committee
Pennsylvania Division, AAUP
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania AAUP Newsletter
During the past year and a half the government relations people of the AAUP and the Pennsylvania Division–and numerous other higher education interested parties as well–have spent a great deal of their time on the hearings and deliberations held by a special committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, called the Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education. The committee was created in July 2005 by the House, pursuant to a resolution (HR 177) that called for an inquiry into the conditions of academic freedom in the state’s public institutions of higher education.
The principal sponsor of the resolution was Representative Gibson C. Armstrong of Lancaster County, who clearly had been influenced by the conservative activist David Horowitz. Horowitz had been promoting for the previous two years something called the “Academic Bill of Rights,” a statement advocating “balance” in political ideology in the classroom, and affording students remedies in dealing with intimidation by professors. Bills mandating the “Bill of Rights” as a standard for colleges have been introduced in one form or another in twenty states, and so far have not been adopted in any of them. While Rep. Armstrong envisioned a law enacting a Bill of Rights, he was persuaded not to prejudge the case by declaring it to be necessary, and instead agreed to an investigative committee to inquire into the facts of the matter. Armstrong repeatedly declared that he had received numerous complaints from college students who felt oppressed by liberal views heard in the classroom, although there was little evidence of this put before the committee.
AAUP and other academic organizations opposed the idea of an Academic Bill of Rights from the outset, arguing that despite its benign name such a measure would be an intrusion into the academic freedom of the institutions involved. They argued that the discussion of the issue failed to distinguish between the rights of students and the academic freedom of the teacher and researcher, which were two different things. The suggestion that the Academic Bill of Rights be made a matter of legislation especially raised fears about government intrusion into the classroom with some sort of regulatory instrument. How would such a law be enforced, if colleges were found deficient in observing these standards? What precedent might be set for further government inquiry into opinions voiced in the classroom?
The committee that was set up under HR 177 was not a special committee selected only for the purpose; instead it was comprised of the regular House Subcommittee on Higher Education, with the addition of two other members selected by the House leadership. These were Armstrong, a Republican, and Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat from Allegheny County. The chair of the committee was Rep. Tom Stevenson of Allegheny County, the usual chair of the subcommittee. From the beginning of the deliberations, Rep. Armstrong failed to achieve his hopes that the committee might be a forum for airing numerous complaints by conservative students against liberal professors. When HR 177 was passed it contained an amendment stating that if any professor were to be accused in the hearings of intimidating or abusing a student, he/she would be given 48 hours notice and a chance to respond to the testimony. Beyond that, Chairman Stevenson made it clear that he did not want the sessions to be full of “he said-she said” stories, but rather to concentrate on the policies and procedures that were in effect in the public institutions.
The committee then proceeded to hold an organizing session, followed by hearings held in four different locations, each lasting two days. These were at the University of Pittsburgh (Nov. 9-10, 2005); at Temple University (January 9-10, 2006); at Millersville University (March 22-23, 2006); and at Harrisburg Area Community College (May 31-June 1, 2006). While there were some disagreements among committee members about the necessity for the committee (several repeatedly called it a “solution in search of a problem”), the hearings went forward in an orderly but sometimes tedious fashion. Rep. Stevenson chaired the proceedings in a generally even-handed way.
Rep. Armstrong had arranged (with the obvious assistance of David Horowitz) for numerous testifiers who generally argued for the necessity to curb liberal outrages against students with something like the Academic Bill of Rights. These included Horowitz himself, who appeared at the Temple hearings. His accusations included the story he had widely circulated elsewhere that a biology professor at Penn State had shown an anti-war movie to his class. When Rep. Lawrence Curry, the minority chair of the committee, pointed out that this story had been investigated and was found to be totally untrue, Horowitz simply remarked that he did not have time to investigate all the complaints he received.
Also testifying for the Armstrong viewpoint were conservative activists Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who also appeared at Temple, and Stephen Balch of the National Association of Scholars, who appeared at Pittsburgh. Balch particularly expressed concern about unduly liberal fields of study (as he saw it), in particular Women’s Studies and Social Work. Pointing out that the mission statement of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work endorsed “social justice,” he suggested that the term concealed dangerous radical tendencies. Other witnesses discussed the supposed tendency of college faculties to move toward ever greater liberal extremism. Much of this testimony seemed to highlight the partisan nature of the whole discussion, since liberal viewpoints were most often cited as examples of classroom bias.
The AAUP had become involved with the work of the committee from the beginning. When HR 177 was first introduced, the Pennsylvania Division’s legislative representative in Harrisburg, David Tive, notified the Division’s officers, who in turn alerted Mark Smith, then head of Government Relations in AAUP’s Washington office. Smith had already been dealing with Academic Bill of Rights issues in other states, but quickly turned his attention to Pennsylvania. For the hearings, he provided the committee with two of the AAUP’s relevant policy statements: the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and the 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students (with further emendations and interpretations to 1992). These were offered as fundamental statements of principles which were the foundation for the policies in force at many higher education institutions. Equally important were expert AAUP witnesses he obtained to testify. Robert Moore, then president-elect of the Pennsylvania Division, testified in Pittsburgh about how students’ rights were adequately covered by existing policies in the state universities. Also testifying were Joan Wallach Scott, of the Institute for Advanced Study, a former chair of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure; and Robert M. O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia, and another former chair of the AAUP’s Committee A.
Much effective testimony was also heard from administrators, faculty, and students at the various public institutions of higher education. In early 2006 a coalition of interested organizations opposing the Academic Bill of Rights had been formed, under the title “Free Exchange on Campus” (FEOC). Participating organizations besides the AAUP included the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, APSCUF (the union of the 14 institutions in the State System of Higher Education), the American Civil Liberties Union, and some student organizations. Together these organizations invited testimony from many administrators, faculty members, and students who discussed the actual conditions of academic freedom on the public campuses and the procedures that were already in place to deal with intimidation, bias, and infringement of students’ rights. These witnesses were most effective in demonstrating the lack of problems concerning academic freedom and the effectiveness of existing institutional procedures. Testifying that academic freedom was well protected were 24 of 28 Pennsylvania students, 24 of 29 Pennsylvania faculty members, and all 8 of the administrators, including the presidents of Pitt, Temple, and Millersville (according to a tabulation by FEOC).
After the committee finished its final hearings in Harrisburg, there was uncertainty as to whether the report the committee was obliged to issue would be one clear statement, or would perhaps have a minority report as well. The issue was also complicated by the fact that in the primary elections held just two weeks before the Harrisburg hearings three Republican members of the committee, including Rep. Armstrong and Chairman Stevenson, were defeated (for reasons having little to do with the HR 177 matters). Recognizing that their report might also have implications for the fall elections, the committee postponed the final delivery of the report until a November 30 deadline.
The result of the November elections, with the defeat of many incumbents in the Pennsylvania House and the possible loss of control of the House by the Republican Party, increased the likelihood that little legislation on Academic Bill of Rights matters would be implemented in the next session. Several Republicans and most of the Democrats on the committee had spoken out against recommending legislation. When the final report was delivered on November 14, it contained findings that problems of academic freedom were rare in Pennsylvania, and recommendations that no legislation was needed. It recommended that institutions review their policies on bias and intimidation and publicize them better among students. But the report also included 25 pages of “summary,” written by Rep. Armstrong.
This statement, clearly at odds with the committee’s conclusions, leaned heavily on the opinions of Horowitz, Neal, and Balch, and created the impression of widespread offenses against students’ rights. Rep. Curry, the minority chairman, stated his objections and hinted at the issuance of a minority report.
The outcome was postponed, however, when the Nov. 14 meeting lacked a quorum and had to be adjourned before the vote. When the committee reconvened on November 21, significant changes had been made in the report, no doubt because of discussions between Reps. Curry and Stevenson, who clearly sought to have one unanimous report. The report in its Nov. 21 form lacked the Armstrong “summary,” but he was allowed to place the same material in an appendix labeled “Remarks of Select Committee Members.” This freed the other members from having to endorse Armstrong’s opinions, and the final report passed unanimously (and with sighs of relief from most of the committee members).
Since the final outcome was relatively innocuous and inconsequential, some may be tempted to say that all the considerable efforts of the committee and of those showing interest in its proceedings were unnecesary. But that would overlook the fact that a major effort to introduce government intrusion into the classroom was defeated. The whole affair points to the fact that, especially in times of national crisis and war, governments and politicians become uneasy about freedom of thought and inquiry. The federal Patriot Act may be cited as an example. And the misnamed Academic Bill of Rights may yet be put forth in other jurisdictions, if not in Pennsylvania. The vigilance of the AAUP and other associations in Pennsylvania was not in vain. Eternal vigilance is still the price of liberty, and in this case the price of academic freedom.