Academic Freedom's Thin Line

By Hamilton, Kendra | Black Issues in Higher Education, March 11, 2004 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom's Thin Line


Hamilton, Kendra, Black Issues in Higher Education


Web site challenges perception of academia as a safe place for the exchange of ideas, opinions

Luann Wright, founder and president of NoIndoctrination.org, a Web site devoted to policing professors accused of harassing conservative students in their classrooms, firmly believes that what she's doing is a public service.

"The university should be a marketplace of ideas, a safe place to explore a variety of perspectives," she says. "But I don't see that happening."

What she sees, she says, is fear - "There's so much of it out there." Everyday, Wright, a writer of science curricula for the gifted and a mother, says she talks to the fearful: the students scared they won't get the recommendations that would pave their way to graduate school or the professions; the professors who dare not speak freely in their own departments.

"I have posting after posting where people just write in to say, 'Thank you. Thank you just for being there,'" she says.

Dr. Alvin Tillery, assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, agrees about the fear and intimidation. The catch is that he thinks Wright and her Web site are their source.

After a student complaint landed him on Nolndoctrination.org in early July, Tillery says he found himself not only unable to refute the posting (due to what Wright calls a server error, the rebuttal did not post until Feb. 17, 2004) but also exposed to a barrage of e-mail from conservative readers apparently unconnected to but certainly angered by what they read on the site.

A typical example read, in part: "...one-sided ideologs like you are finally being exposed for what you are. thought youd (sic) like to see what the rest of the world thinks, "harvard" - where Tillery earned his Ph.D. - "would be proud of you. wouldnt it be easier to earn your money by actually teaching?"

THE FRONT LINES

Welcome to the front lines of the latest skirmish in the apparently never-ending cultural war for the academy's soul. Fired by what they see as overwhelming evidence of liberal group-think in the professoriate, conservative-leaning individuals and groups are taking the battle straight to those whom they deem most culpable.

On Feb. 10, the Duke Conservative Union stirred debate with an ad in the campus newspaper that used voter registration records to make claims of overwhelming liberal bias in the eight humanities departments. The ad claimed there were 142 registered Democrats and only eight registered Republicans among the group of humanities professors.

Meanwhile, the Young Conservatives of Texas made headlines as spring enrollment got under way at University of Texas-Austin by publishing a "Professor Watch List," naming those "who push an ideological viewpoint on their students through oftentimes subtle but sometimes abrasive methods of indoctrination." Professors from government, economics and humanities were prominent among those named.

And the campaign by activist David Horowitz for an "academic bill of rights" continues to gather steam. A version of the bill, championing "intellectual diversity" - i.e., more conservative representation - in hiring and teaching practices, was introduced in the Colorado legislature last month, joining one introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last October.

'NOT ALL THAT CONSERVATIVE'

Discussions of academic freedom usually revolve around a professor's right to be free of intimidation by departments, administrations, even state legislatures in formulating their ideas or theories.

Web sites such as NoIndoctrination.org turn the discussion to the students' rights - to be free of intimidation or coercion in the classroom.

For Wright, a soft-spoken woman who insists she is "not all that conservative," the call to action came in fall 2000, when she began hearing "alarming" reports about her son's required writing course at University of California-San Diego. …

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