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Monday, July 11, 2005

48 Hours

On Tuesday of last week, voting along party lines, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed House Resolution 177, “establishing a select committee to examine the academic atmosphere and the degree to which faculty have the opportunity to instruct and students have the opportunity to learn in an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth at State-related and State-owned colleges and universities and community colleges in this Commonwealth.” It’s nice that my local Republican representatives have decided that the House should take the time to make sure that I have the “opportunity” to instruct my students, and that my students have the “opportunity” to learn.  Specifically, the select committee is charged with determining whether:

(1) faculty are hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure based on their professional competence and subject matter knowledge and with a view of helping students explore and understand various methodologies and perspectives;

(2) students have an academic environment, quality life [sic] on campus and reasonable access to course materials that create an environment conducive to learning, the development of critical thinking and the exploration and expression of independent thought and that the students are evaluated based on their subject knowledge; and

(3) that students are graded based on academic merit, without regard for ideological views, and that academic freedom and the right to explore and express independent thought is available to and practiced freely by faculty and students.

The committee can call hearings and conduct investigations until June 30, 2006—or it “may extend the investigation for additional time,” until November 30—whereupon it will “make a report of its findings and any recommendations for remedial legislation and other appropriate action.”

Oh, and by the way, here’s a “resolved” clause so important that the original document puts it in ALL CAPS:


That’s nice too, isn’t it?  First the legislature wants to ensure that I have the opportunity to instruct my students, and then it gives me the opportunity to testify at the same hearing as any student making an allegation against me.  So many “opportunities” here!  I appreciate the 48 hours’ notice so that I can set my affairs in order, too.  I hear that the original language was much harsher, and that House Republicans were simply planning to dispatch the special House Public Enemies Van to the offices of accused faculty members, and then lead them out of their buildings and into the back of the van under armed guard.  But the House dropped that provision in favor of this one, reportedly because people might get the wrong idea about this bill.

Now, regular readers of this blog will know that the language of paragraphs (1)-(3) in the first “resolved” clause is based on David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” and you may know that Horowitz has hailed H.R. 177 as “a tremendous victory for academic freedom”.  You may also know that Horowitz claimed victory last month as well, when the American Council on Education and 25 other higher education organizations issued a two-page statement in support of “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom” on American campuses.  As Scott Jaschik wrote in Inside Higher Ed on June 23,

Organizers hoped the statement would deflate the movement in state legislatures and Congress to enact the Academic Bill of Rights. Horowitz called the statement “a major victory” for his campaign and said that it opened up the possibility that he would work directly with colleges on remaining differences of opinion, rather than seeking legislation.

Well, so much for that little “let’s head D. Ho. off at the pass” strategy, folks!  But let’s get this much straight.  The ACE-and-friends statement was not a major victory for Horowitz.  Claiming victory is a political tactic, people, and Horowitz is exceptionally good at it.  Indeed, if Horowitz were the head of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, he would have claimed victory by now.  “The lockout has been a tremendous success,” he’d be saying.  “We couldn’t have asked for anything better.” So I didn’t worry about Horowitz claiming victory last month; on the contrary, I was quoted at the end of that June 23 article, to the effect that the ACE statement was no big deal:

Bérubé said that the statement from college groups embraces only “the innocuous parts” of Horowitz’s proposals while rejecting “the truly obnoxious aspect,” a move to have legislators “be empowered to investigate individual teachers and reading lists.”

Yeah, well, so much for my little strategy, too.  Because you know what?  This latest “tremendous victory” for David Horowitz really is a tremendous victory, and it retroactively makes a victory out of what, in June, had effectively been a tie.  Now we’ve got the Horowitz-inspired ACE document, drafted in the hopes of deflating ABOR-influenced bills in state legislatures, and we’ve got a Horowitz-inspired bill passed by a state legislature, too.  And this one includes one of the most obnoxious aspects of Horowitz’s campaign: the power to investigate individual teachers and reading lists.

Though we do get 48 hours to respond.

I have only a few (rather predictable) remarks about all this.

One.  We got punk’d.  The ACE, the AAUP, and every other organization that believed it could derail Horowitz’s campaign simply by reiterating the very rhetoric he’d gotten from these organizations’ previous statements, from the AAUP’s 1915 General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure on forward, and publishing it all in a statement supporting “intellectual pluralism”—y’all got taken.  Badly.  Believe me, I’ve been there, and I know.

Two.  Shame to say, Pennsylvania now has—officially, indisputably—the most gullible lower legislative house in the country.  They didn’t fall for this nonsense in any of the other states where Horowitzian bills have been introduced.  They didn’t fall for it California, or Colorado, or Georgia, or Ohio.  They’re not falling for it in Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, or Washington.  Damn, they didn’t even fall for it in Florida, for goodness’ sake.  Only in Pennsylvania has a state legislature adopted a Horowitzian professor-investigating scheme.  Congratulations, Pennsylvania House Republicans!  You have now outdone the rest of the Republic, even unto the most dogmatic creationists in the legislative chambers of the other 49 states.  I do hope your investigations go well.  Which brings me to . . .

Three.  If I were a crafty SOB like Horowitz, and wanted to throw a spanner in the local right-wing works, I’d go after the most nebulous clause in paragraphs (1)-(3), the one that asks whether “students have an academic environment, quality life [sic] on campus and reasonable access to course materials that create an environment conducive to learning.” I’d begin gathering statements from gay, African-American and other minority students about whether their quality of campus life creates an environment conducive to learning.  I’d flood the legislature with complaints about College Republicans and their little “affirmative action bake sales,” which are patently obvious attempts to insult and belittle black and Hispanic students.  I’d make H.R. 177 a referendum on investigating incidents of racism, sexism, and homophobia throughout the State-related and State-owned colleges and universities of this fair Commonwealth.  It would be a terrible mess, and it would lead to all manner of strange allegations.  But that’s what I’d do if I were a crafty SOB.  Just saying.

Four.  Finally, there’s the question of how all this affects me as a professor at the Pennsylvania State University.  I’m not really sure yet.  I was planning to offer a course on slave narratives and American literature, but now I don’t know whether the syllabus is sufficiently respectful of different points of view.  With all due respect to my esteemed U.S. Senator, Rick Santorum, I know that my current syllabus does not contain any material that suggests that slavery might have been better than abortion.  I was going to assign the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, but until now had given no thought to asking students to research the Anthony family’s account of what it was like to own Douglass.  Nor was I going to ask students to read any material on slavery’s economic benefits, any Christian defenses of the rightness of slavery, or any examples of the once-widespread argument that slaves were constitutionally incapable of self-governance.  And as Horowitz’s “Students for Academic Freedom” correctly notes, “you can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story.” So I could probably use some help putting together my reading list, lest it turn out to be unacceptably hostile to certain “dissenting” points of view.

Those of you (in academe or out) who live in Pennsylvania, who have been to Pennsylvania, or who have heard of Pennsylvania might take some interest in this.  Please contact Pennsylvania Representative Mark B. Cohen (D - Philadelphia County), who recently wrote on Dr. B.’s blog that

This pseudo-investigation has the potential to cause intimidation of many professors and to make the investigators a national laughingstock.

Not a single text of a Pennsylvania complaint was released, but the Horowitz web site, Students for Academic Freedom, quotes one student as saying he or she was victimized for conservative beliefs because his or her paper was both spellchecked and proofread and therefore had to be deserving of a high grade.

Concerned Pennsylvania legislators could use back-up support from state and national members of the academic community. We need to know about reality-based practices and principles to be able to win the media war against Horowitz developed theories and fantasies.

Rep. Cohen, this humble blog stands ready and willing to provide backup support.  My book in progress has an entire chapter on Horowitzian attacks on professors, and I’d be happy to provide you with a manuscript copy of the chapter (and whatever else you think might help) as a public service to my fellow citizens.  And readers, feel free to offer advice, information, and survival tips.

Posted by Michael on 07/11 at 01:21 PM
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