Shedding the Intellectual Straitjacket

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on May 2, 2006

(by Lynn Vincent, – As commencement orators or their ghostwriters write their speeches for graduations next month or in early June, bookings for liberals such as Sen. John Kerry and Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen outpace those for conservatives by 2-to-1. That ratio is smaller than usual, but a coalition of conservatives and moderates aims higher: Its goal is to have more college professors teaching students how to think rather than what to think.

Activist David Horowitz, along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and hundreds of students and professors, are asking state legislators and Congress to push back against politics in the classroom. Mr. Horowitz, who recently helped launch a campus network called Students for Academic Freedom, teamed with Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) to push a measure called the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) through the U.S. House last month.

Attached as a “sense of Congress” to H.R. 609, the College Access and Opportunity Act of 2006, ABOR affirms intellectual diversity as a key strength of education and states that students should not be intimidated or graded down because of their political, religious, or ideological beliefs. Versions of ABOR have been or are up for discussion in the legislatures of more than 20 states.

Like H.R. 609, the state measures have no teeth. They simply condemn viewpoint discrimination against students and discourage off-topic political grandstanding and indoctrination incidents like these:

After a student pro-life group erected a display on campus, Northern Kentucky University literature professor Sally Jacobsen invited her graduate students to help her destroy it. On April 12 at about 5:30 p.m., the tenured teacher and her students uprooted about 400 small white crosses and chucked them into garbage cans. The U.S. Supreme Court has extended First Amendment protection to such displays, but Professor Jacobsen told reporters: “Any violence perpetrated against that silly display was minor compared to how I felt when I saw it.”

When a conservative foundation last year organized a lecture by a pro-Iraq War veteran at New Jersey’s Warren County Community College, freshman Rebecca Beach promoted the event by e-mailing faculty members. John Daley, an adjunct professor of English, replied with an e-mail of his own: “[R]eal freedom will come when soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors. . . . I will continue to expose your right-wing, anti-people politics until groups like yours won’t dare show their face on a college campus.” Mr. Daley later said he did not know he was e-mailing a student, but he also argued that his critics were attacking his “academic freedom.”

The University of California-Berkeley’s course offerings this spring include “Ethnic Studies 198: The Prop. 209 Project.” Prop. 209, a California voter initiative that prohibited the state from creating preferential programs based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin, passed handily in 1996. Although UC’s course content policy states that the university “must remain aloof from politics,” the course description for Ethnic Studies 198 has students crafting “a political strategy” to reverse Prop. 209, and a course application asked students to “please describe any technical skills that would be useful in a political campaign.”

Like UC, many colleges and universities already prohibit political activism and indoctrination. National groups such as the American Council on Education state that “neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions.” The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statement on academic freedom reads, “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

Nevertheless, AAUP and several teachers unions are leading the fight against Mr. Horowitz’s efforts, which—according to the AAUP’s Roger Brown—attempt to “undermine the well-placed confidence of this nation in its exemplary higher education system.” William Scheuerman, president of the United University Professions, a New York AFL-CIO affiliate, labeled ABOR a “noble-sounding . . . stealth attack” and an attempt to legislate a new “version of McCarthyism.”

Mr. Horowitz notes that even many conservatives “tend to adopt the left’s view that I want to legislate what universities do. But I don’t.” His goal, he said, is to mobilize lawmakers to hold publicly funded schools accountable for policing their own standards of conduct: “Hey, enforce the rules.”

Six years ago, UC’s failure to enforce its own rules against classroom politics turned Luann Wright from educator and concerned mom into academic freedom activist. A former high-school teacher who now writes biology curriculum for gifted students, Ms. Wright, 58, spent 15 years as a docent at the San Diego Natural History Museum and is a guide at nearby Mission Trails Regional Park. After her son, Kyle, entered UC-San Diego in 2000, she “had hoped to do more bird watching and nature study.”

It didn’t turn out that way, in part because Kyle, when a freshman in the school’s Warren College Writing Program, sent home an e-mail listing five essays he’d been assigned to read. “The first essay . . . practically accused all whites as being racist,” Kyle wrote. “The next two essays were responses which essentially agreed with the first essay and added further arguments.” The fourth piece, which challenged the original author in a “civil and academic fashion,” was written by conservative African-American scholar Walter E. Williams—and the final essay “was essentially a personal attack that basically accused [Williams] of being a traitor to his race.”

When Kyle told his mom about the course, she waited to learn the professor’s intentions: Was the provocative reading assigned to stimulate lively writing and discussion? “I would have had no problem with her introducing controversial material into the classroom for that reason,” Ms. Wright said. “People often write better when they’re passionate.” But as the semester wore on, Kyle reported that students received teaching about writing only when they complained; most of the time the class suffered through “a kind of brainwashing,” with white students told that they were inherently racist and dissenters from that view lambasted.

Ms. Wright performed a California Public Records Act search and found that students, parents, and even other professors had been complaining about the Warren College writing program for years—so much so that one student had dubbed it the “kill whitey course.” Since 2002, Ms. Wright has testified twice before the California Senate education committee, citing similar abuses around the state, and set up a website that supports professorial academic freedom but notes that “faculty are also obligated to protect their students’ academic freedom. Students have a right to courses that accurately reflect the description in the course catalog. . . . Students have a right to learn in an environment that fosters open inquiry and freedom of expression—without fear of reprisal, ridicule, or hostility.”

Even official descriptions of university goals show efforts to organize rather than teach students, including future teachers. The mission statement of the University of Alabama college of education shows commitment to “preparing individuals to promote social justice, be change agents, and to recognize individual and institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism.” The college trains student teachers to “develop anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-sexist alliances.” The University of Alaska’s school of education emphasizes “the interrelatedness of race, identity, and the curriculum, especially the role of white privilege.”

Minority members who don’t fall into line about “white privilege” often suffer harassment, as the story of David Yeagley shows. Mr. Yeagley was a college diversity facilitator’s dream: A direct descendant of the Commanche Indian warrior Bad Eagle, he wears his black hair long and straight. But when he taught ancient humanities at Oklahoma State University in 2000-2001, his brand of intellectual diversity didn’t sit well with administrators. Mr. Yeagley had become “convinced that my students had no concept of patriotism,” and wrote a letter to Gov. Frank Keating about the lack.

Mr. Keating asked the untenured professor to write a curriculum that would introduce students to the concept, and when he did FOX News, C-SPAN, and other media outlets paid attention—and Oklahoma State dumped him. Mr. Yeagley notes that “academic freedom has ceased to be a matter of logic or reason and become a matter of power,” and he now writes and speaks in support of ABOR and against political indoctrination.

Ironically, Mr. Horowitz was in the 1960s a leftist who wanted to indoctrinate students; now he’s fighting the fallout. “Conservatives don’t get what the left gets, which is that the left has already colonized and converted whole university departments—women’s studies, black studies, sociology—into political parties with an academic veneer,” he says. His goal is to push universities to disclose their actions. “The trick of our campaign is making their actions public. The legislation is what’s going to do it.”

Copyright 2006 WORLD Magazine, April 29, 2006. Reprinted here with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at