Sunday, December 12, 2010

Penn State Senate Moves to Restore Academic Freedom

This past week, the Penn State University system moved to dramatically improve what had been one of the worst speech codes on faculty in America, HR 64. After being overwhelmingly approved, now it goes to President Spanier for approval.

Here are the proposed changes to HR 64:

There were some minor amendments (not yet printed) during the debate over the resolution. (See the discussion here; it begins with slide 6, 27:40 into the meeting.) But the most important changes remain.

Absolutely appalling attacks on academic freedom are now removed, such as this provision:
“No faculty member may claim as a right the privilege of discussing in the classroom controversial topics outside his/her own field of study. The faculty member is normally bound not to take advantage of his/her position by introducing into the classroom provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects not within the field of his/her study.”

Other provisions are dramatically improved. Here's the original wording: “Hence, in giving instruction upon controversial matters the faculty members is expected to be of a fair and judicial mind, and to set forth justly, without supersession or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators.”

Here's the much better revised version of HR 64, without the bizarre “judicial mind” requirement and the broad ban on “innuendo”:
“Faculty members are expected to present information fairly, and to set forth justly the divergent opinions that arise out of scholarly methodology and professionalism.”

And provisions are added to protect the freedom of faculty to discuss governance issues without fear of retribution. The statement of purpose at the start puts academic responsibility where it belongs, as a moral demand on faculty rather than an enforceable right imposed by the administration.

David Horowitz, in his new book, Reforming Our Universities, writes at length about HR 64 and his efforts to convince a student to file a complaint about a class in which the documentary An Inconvenient Truth was shown, even though the students were encouraged to express their views

In my interview with Horowitz, he claims that he didn't try to ban the showing of Gore's documentary. It's hard to see how getting a student to file a formal complaint against allowing the documentary to be shown is anything but that. Horowitz writes that “the Gore film was not about social science issues” and therefore it was not “pertinent to a class devoted to teaching students how to write papers in social science.” Of course, the notion that global warming has nothing to do with the social sciences is both idiotic and insane.

Under the old HR 64, any student could file a Horowitz-style complaint about any class which had readings or assignments they didn't like. Horowitz's 11-month crusade aimed at bureaucratic censorship of faculty at Penn State is an example of the dangers involved in making reasonable classroom assignments the subject of grievance procedures. Penn State's revision of HR 64 needs to be approved in order to enhance academic freedom protections for everyone.

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