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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

On the home front

Mass media are really amazing.  You talk to a reporter in the evening, and your remarks are in the paper the very next morning!  My stars, these news-papers work almost as quickly as blogs.

Our local paper, the Centre Daily Times, has recently run a couple of terrific articles on academic freedom at Penn State (since we’ve got this HR 177 and its House Subcommittee on Academic Freedom’s hearings this year), and this morning’s article reveals that over the past five years, Penn State has dealt with thirteen—yes, thirteen—claims of “bias” in the classroom.

In the context of Penn State’s entire faculty—some 8,000 professors and instructors—the complaints represent a relatively minor problem, Vice Provost Blannie Bowen said.

OK, thirteen complaints divided by eight thousand professors and instructors, over five years, with a student body of 40,000 . . . yes, I’d have to agree that this amounts to a relatively minor problem for most students.

But in the article’s eighteenth paragraph, there’s a funny pivot:

Michael Berube, a Penn State professor who has opposed legislative oversight of academia, said it’s possible that students are underreporting professor violations of university code.

I did indeed say that, and reporter Adam Smeltz, who’s done a fine job on the Penn State beat, is quoting me accurately.  But just for the record, it’s not as if I phoned the Centre Daily Times and said, “hold on a second with that ‘bias’ story—after all, it’s always possible that students are underreporting bias.” Quite the contrary: Mr. Smeltz told me about some of the findings of this study, and then noted that people like David Horowitz are claiming that students are underreporting incidents.  “Is that possible?” he asked.

Well, of course it’s possible.  I mean, we have a couple of students who think that when they encounter an ardently liberal professor, the thing to do is to complain to the local state legislator.  And it’s entirely possible that the university’s grievance procedure is being underutilized or bypassed by students who don’t know it exists.

But—and, as Pee Wee Herman once said, this is a big but—I also pointed out to Mr. Smeltz that if our thirteen complaints are indicative of the general climate at Penn State, there’s simply no way that a greater number of “bias” allegations would break down along red/ blue, liberal/ conservative lines.  And the Centre Daily Times suggests as much in the two paragraphs that precede my appearance:

Available details about the complaints are limited. One stemmed from a journalism class in which a student said a faculty member denigrated some political views. In a separate incident, a complainant alleged that a professor was too explicit in talking about a sexual practice.

One student said that a “conflict in values” adversely affected his or her grade. A Muslim student contended that a professor was against Islam. Another student said a faculty member was offering perspectives that were too conservative.

Which is to say, yet again, that classroom realities in the reality-based world just don’t bear out Horowitz’s obsessions. 

Nonetheless, Horowitz’s obsessions can have a funny way of inspiring conservative students to think of themselves as victims of liberal professors, which is why I suggested (and Mr. Smeltz quotes me at the end of the article) that

the Horowitz movement, [Berube] said, “certainly gives some students the motivation to think that they’re encountering persecution simply by having a preponderance of liberal faculty members.”

I’ll have more on this theme tomorrow, in this talk at the Paterno/ Pattee Libraries, and I’ll reproduce my remarks on this humble blog on Friday.  Just for the record.

Posted by Michael on 01/25 at 08:20 AM
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