Topic: Professions & Institutions

'Viewpoint Discrimination' on Campus
(12/30/2004)

A new survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) raises ethical issues concerning the college classroom that are neither clear nor easy to resolve.

ACTA, together with the Center for Survey Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut, surveyed students at 50 top U.S. universities and colleges to gauge the perceived levels of intellectual intolerance among faculty members. Nearly half of the students reported that their professors "frequently comment on politics in class even though it has nothing to do with the course" or use the classroom to present personal political viewpoints. Not surprisingly, most students acknowledged that liberal views predominate…not a problem in itself. But 29% of those surveyed agreed with this statement:

"On my campus, there are courses in which students feel they have to agree with the professor's political or social views in order to get a good grade."

Is this indoctrination or instruction? The line is unclear. ACTA's president, Anne Neal, found the study's results disturbing. "The fact that half the students are reporting [some] abuses is simply unacceptable," she is quoted as saying in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "If these were reports of sexual harassment in the classroom, they would get people's attention."

But this phenomenon might well be an illusion at a time of unusually polarized political opinion. After all, college professors in courses covering science, history, economics and political science are supposed to have strong points of view that they have argued in books and scholarly journals. It isn't surprising that these views come out in class, or that the students, not being delivered to college directly from the turnip truck, understand that consciously or unconsciously most professors respond more positively to concurring views than contrary ones.

A less scientific survey than the ACTA study was published in Yale's conservative student paper, The Free Press. True, not many read it, as the first run of that issue were all stolen, though hopefully not by Yale professors. The survey recounted several anecdotes like this one:

"My teacher came into class the day after the election proclaiming, 'That's it. This is the death of America.' The rest of the class was eager to agree, and twenty minutes of Bush-bashing ensued. At one point, one student asked our teacher whether she should be so vocal, lest any students be conservatives. She then asked us whether any of us were Republicans. Naturally, no one volunteered that information, whereupon our teacher turned to the inquisitive student and said, 'See? No one in here would be stupid enough to vote for Bush'."

Another student reported that "My Spanish teacher only presented readings against Bush's trade policy in Latin America, and actively silenced people who disagreed with her." One respondent said that her professor "mocked conservatives constantly." Some simply said that they felt intimidated.

If this kind of behavior is commonplace, then academia has lost its moorings in basic values like fairness, civility and respect. More than that, it has lost its comprehension of the purposes of higher education in a democracy. A college student's ideas should be tested, challenged and broadened, but only through a process of debate and scholarly discourse. Intimidation, ridicule, and intellectual bullying are not proper tools of education unless we're talking about educating "The Manchurian Candidate."

The anecdotal evidence that the faculties of colleges and universities across the country have de facto declared "correct" and "incorrect" political, philosophical, and economic points of view is persuasive, even if one allows for hypersensitivity to their minority status on the part of campus conservatives. In New York, for example, one group of such students called "The New York Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow" has filed a lawsuit against the Student Association of the University of Albany, alleging that it has been denied funding in violation of a 2002 U. S. Supreme Court ruling requiring that campus funding of student activities be "viewpoint neutral."

Whether the group has a valid case or not (its particular viewpoint is that DDT is unfairly maligned), it is clear that this issue needs to be seriously examined by university and college administrators. Is it really so hard for schools to develop a policy that encourages diverse ideas and directs faculty to refrain from demonizing those who dare to disagree with them? If so, that in itself is strong evidence that they have a problem, and so does America. When colleges begin fostering conformity of thought, the quality of thought is bound to suffer.



 

   
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