This week, help me welcome guest labor bloggers, Craig Smith (aka “cps”) and Chris Goff (aka “cjg”), from the Free Exchange on Campus Blog. Free Exchange is a coalition of faculty, student and progressive policy groups that works to protect academic freedom and free speech at our colleges and universities. In particular, Free Exchange has worked tirelessly to counter the right-wing activists such as David Horowitz and Lynne Cheney’s group, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (PDF), which are introducing bills across the country to legislate what gets taught in our college classrooms and to squelch speech on campus. Horowitz has called Free Exchange everything from racists to totalitarians (and despite being made up of a dozen different organizations) nothing more than a front for the teachers unions. They must be doing something right!  

What is it about America’s colleges and universities that send right-wing reactionaries into such a frothing tizzy?  If you were to believe people like Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), David Horowitz, and their allies, institutions of higher learning in this country are the redoubts of political radicals who are warding off certain extinction with the shield of academic freedom and insidious hives of indoctrination, turning naïve young minds into rabid America-haters. They’re temples of secular progressivism, post-modern houses of mirrors where the accumulated wisdom of two millennia of western thought is cast aside in favor of an “anything goes, your ‘truth’ is as good as mine” relativism designed to gratify rather than educate. Behind every office door is a Ward Churchill. Conservative academics are blacklisted. Snoop Dogg replaces Shakespeare. An “America is Wrong” agenda eclipses the inculcation of civic virtue. And people pay for this freak show of an “education!” 

Students would surely echo Mr. Kurtz in crying, “The horror! The horror!” if only college English departments would teach them Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, rather than Radical Lesbian Poetry 101!

If you were to believe people like Anne Neal and David Horowitz and then were to sit down in some random college classroom, you’d be shocked—shocked to see how normal things are. On college and university campuses around the country, students are exposed to challenging new ideas, guided by well-trained professional scholars who take pride in their craft and are excited to introduce students to the “life of the mind.” Are there exceptions to this general characterization? Seeing as how professors are human, of course there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. Unfortunately, ultraconservative critics of the academy have been nothing if not persistent in getting their message of the “liberal bias” of the academy into the public sphere.

The methods behind their PR madness will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the radical right for the past six years. Extremist critics cherry-pick the most egregious fringe members of the academy and claim represent the whole. They publicize anonymously submitted, unsubstantiated, single-sourced claims of indoctrination solicited by their network of allied front groups. They publish “reports” using “facts” and “methods” that would be laughed at by any serious research analyst. A favorite tactic, used by Horowitz in his factually challenged, McCarthy-esque screed, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, and aped by ACTA, is to use the political opinions expressed by professors outside the classroom as proof of their leftist bias within the classroom.  In other words, a lot of hot air, but a little thin on substance.

So, to what end do these attacks serve? ACTA and Horowitz would have you believe they are trying to restore integrity and protect academic freedom through the innocuous-sounding vehicles of “intellectual diversity” measures and an Academic Bill of Rights that they are promoting to state legislatures and the governing bodies of colleges and universities.  At first glance, these measures seem harmless, if not out-and-out desirable.  Who could be against academic freedom and intellectual diversity?  Who doesn’t agree that students shouldn’t be graded on their political views? But underneath the cute-and-cuddly language – appropriated from genuine defenders of academic freedom, no less – is a much more insidious agenda. 

What these measures do is sanction interference on the part of legislatures or boards of trustees to ensure that college curriculums and faculties are “balanced.”  Most measures mandate that “all sides” of an issue should be taught—no matter how discredited they are within (or irrelevant to) a discipline. While the competing debates within an academic discipline should be (and most certainly are) discussed in a college classroom, should legislators and trustees be in the game of ensuring that ideas based on biblical inerrancy are given equal consideration in a class on biology?  Of course not.  And the very fact that ACTA and Horowitz want governing bodies involved in curricular and hiring decisions flies in the face of the very principles that academic freedom was designed to uphold—that scholars should be able to pursue their work free from the politicized demands of those from outside who are not professionally engaged in the fields they are attempting to regulate. 

This isn’t an issue of political indoctrination on the part of wild-eyed leftists. In some form or another, these measures have been introduced in 26 state legislatures, and not one state has found the alleged liberal bias to be enough of a concern to pass legislation.  In the only legislative investigation into the issue, a special legislative committee in Pennsylvania found that 

    “violations of academic freedom are rare” and that “legislation…is not necessary.”   

Indeed, if you walk on to a college campus these days, you’ll probably find somewhere a good-faith discussion about how to ensure that conservative perspectives are heard. The truth of the matter is colleges and universities make every effort to promote the free exchange of ideas on campus. Sure, they sometimes stumble in this regard, but on the whole, college campuses are vibrant and cacophonous communities dedicated to the examination of a gallimaufry of ideas. 

And that’s what rankles radical reactionaries like David Horowitz and those at ACTA.  Accustomed to being able to drown out other ideas in the public sphere through a well-financed public relations juggernaut and sheer repetition, colleges and universities remain stubborn enclaves where all ideas may stand on equal footing and be heard, so long as they’re well-supported and vetted through rigorous academic investigation.  It’s not that conservative voices aren’t heard on college campuses; it’s that they’re not given positions of privilege. To squelch competing ideas, conservatives are willing to throw out the academic freedom that has enabled the American system of higher education to be a catalyst for social change, economic development, and personal achievement. They would discard the very thing that brings people from around the world to our colleges and universities. 

Free Exchange on Campus, a coalition of faculty organizations, student groups, and civil rights organizations, invites you to join us in protecting the free exchange of ideas at American colleges and universities and in advancing the notion that the benefits of this free exchange should be available to all who wish to experience it.

For more on the attackers of free exchange, see the following sites: Nonindoctrination.org and Students for Academic Freedom.