Friday, March 20, 2009

Distortions about the AAUP and the College of DuPage

Peter Schmidt at the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on last night's College of DuPage board meeting.

Sara Dogan, National Campus Director of Students for Academic Freedom, also writes a response today. After erroneously referring to Illinois AAUP president “Robert Kendall” (it's Walter Kendall), Dogan writes, “Ironically, while both Kendall and Westman urge the DuPage Board of Trustees to use AAUP statements as models for the policy manual at DuPage, they both vilify the Academic Bill of Rights, which is explicitly drawn from these same AAUP statements.” that's not true. The Academic Bill of Rights is not drawn from the current AAUP standards. Some of its language is similar to historical documents that are no longer in force with the AAUP, but it does not meet AAUP standards at all.

According to Dogan,

Consider the AAUP’s claims about policy 15-335, which states that “Faculty members have a duty to present controversial issues in an unbiased manner which respects their students’ rights to academic freedom to determine for themselves the proper resolution of such issues.” ...
Returning to policy 15-335, the Illinois AAUP claims with extreme pretention that “Many of the revered books of our civilization are ‘biased’; the great thinkers all had a point of view. This policy, if taken as written, would have prevented Jefferson from teaching our Declaration of Independence at the College….it would appear that under this policy, a creationist student could assert the right to disagree with the scientific reality of evolution in a biology class.”
Reading this passage, one would conclude that the Academic Bill of Rights is opposed to “biased” books. But the word “biased” appears nowhere in the Academic Bill of Rights, nor does it appear in the original version of the policy proposal at DuPage. When the school policy refers to an “unbiased manner,” this is clearly defined as one “which respects their students’ rights to academic freedom to determine for themselves the proper resolution of such issues.” Note that this clause applies not to every issue, but only to the presentation of “controversial issues” in the classroom. Since the theory of evolution is no longer considered a controversial issue in the realm of biological scholarship, this policy would not allow for creationist students asserting their right to disagree with an instructor over the theory of evolution, which is supported in scientific scholarship by overwhelming evidence.

However, Dogan is wrong. The policy says nothing about limiting the rule to what is controversial within an academic discipline. It refers to all “controversial issues,” and no one would deny that evolution is controversial in America. Even if the policy were limited to controversies within a discipline, it still would present a dangerous power. Any professor who failed to include a view espoused by any scholar in a field might be subject to an investigation or even a lawsuit. The result would be a chilling effect designed to silence faculty from raising controversial issues in the classroom. The fact that the ABR doesn't mentioned “unbiased” is hardly relevant to the debate about this policy, which does.

It is notable that even Dogan admits to serious flaws in the DuPage proposal: “The AAUP may be correct that the wording is confusingly vague, but the overall point remains that a protection should be put into place guaranteeing students the right to disagree with professors on matters of opinion –as opposed to issues of settled fact – in the classroom.” However, the policy says nothing about “settled fact”--any potential disagreement, if deemed political, could be regarded as a form of discrimination, and put professors in legal trouble if they fail to obey student demands.

Dogan complains, “There has never been an effort to make the Academic Bill of Rights statutory law. While versions of the Academic Bill of Rights have been introduced by state legislators, each of these has taken the form of a non-binding resolution, not a statute.” This is an outright lie that she and David Horowitz repeatedly assert. As I have previously noted, the Ohio and Tennessee proposals were both statutes, and her own Students for Academic Freedom Handbook states, “The passage of a state statute, however, creates a new law, usually proscribing or requiring certain behavior, and imposing penalties for non-compliance. Both are approaches that many state legislators could pursue, and you and your SAF organization need to be ready to support and assist legislators in their efforts.”(page 41)

It's difficult to take seriously someone who engages in this kind of distortion. But Dogan's analysis is notable for several reasons. First, she refuses to defend most of the policies critiqued by the Illinois AAUP. Second, the few areas relating to the Academic Bill of Rights are only half-heartedly defended by her, and even called "confusingly vague." FIRE called the proposal "far from constitutional and far from ready for approval." FIRE is right, and the College of DuPage needs to abandon these unconstitutional and badly worded restrictions on intellectual liberty.

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