In the months ahead, California’s state Senate Committee on Education will consider a bill that pretends to strike a blow for intellectual honesty, truth and freedom, but in reality poses a profound threat to academic freedom in the United States.
Peddled under the benign name “An Academic Bill of Rights,” SB 5 is in fact part of a wide assault on universities, professors and teaching across the country. Similar bills are pending in more than a dozen state legislatures and at the federal level, all calling for government intrusion into pedagogical matters, such as text assignments and course syllabuses, that neither legislators nor bureaucrats are competent to address.
The language of the California bill — which was blocked in committee recently but will be reconsidered later in the legislative session — is extraordinarily disingenuous, even Orwellian. Declaring that “free inquiry and free speech are indispensable” in “the pursuit of truth,” it argues that “intellectual independence means the protection of students from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature.” Professors should “not take unfair advantage of their position of power over a student by indoctrinating him or her with the teacher’s own opinions before a student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question.”
To protect students from what one might (mistakenly) suppose to be an epidemic of indoctrination, the bill mandates that students be graded on the basis of their “reasoned answers” rather than their political beliefs. Reading lists should “respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge.” Speakers brought to campus should “promote intellectual pluralism,” and faculty should eschew political, religious or “anti-religious” bias.
Notwithstanding its contorted syntax, the bill may sound reasonable. But, in fact, it has nothing to do with balance and everything to do with promoting a neoconservative agenda. For one thing, the proposed “safeguards” to “protect” students from faculty intimidation are already in place at all universities, which have procedures to encourage students’ feedback and evaluate their grievances. Despite a lot of noise from the right about liberal bias on campus, there are simply no meaningful data to suggest that any of these procedures have failed.
The real purpose of the bill, then, is not to provide students with “rights” but to institute state monitoring of universities, to impose specific points of view on instructors — in many cases, points of view that have been intellectually discredited — and ultimately to silence dissenting voices by punishing universities that protect them.
“Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies their parents voted us in for?” asks the Republican sponsor of the Ohio version of the bill.
Backers of the Florida bill would like to empower students to sue professors with whom they disagree on the theory of evolution.
The campaign for academic “rights” actually originated with organizations and individuals committed to defending Israel from criticism, and whose interest in curtailing academic freedom dovetails with those of conservatives.
At the federal level, for example, a confluence of conservative and pro-Israeli forces helped push HR 3077 through the House of Representatives in 2003. That bill, which foundered in a Senate committee (but has been resurrected in the current Congress), called for government monitoring of international studies programs that receive federal funding. The bill was drafted in response to the claim that the federal government was funding programs that criticize American foreign policy. If passed, it would have created a board (including two members from “federal agencies that have national security responsibilities”) to ensure that academic programs “better reflect the national needs related to homeland security.” Its supporters included the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Israel Political Action Committee, the bulwark of Israel’s Washington lobby.
The bill was also backed by pro-Israel agitators Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, who, via allies such as neoconservative firebrand David Horowitz, are among the proponents of the “bill of rights” legislation at the state level. All the proposed bills before state legislatures are variants of a text written by Horowitz and backed by Students for Academic Freedom, which maintains a website where students can complain about their instructors’ supposed bias.
The problem with all this is that the university is meant to be an insular environment. Those within its walls are supposed to be protected from outside political pressures so that learning can take place.
But the lesson of the recent upheavals at Columbia University — where an individual professor became the object of a concerted campaign of intimidation because of his criticisms of Israel — is that pressure groups targeting an individual professor for his public views are willing to inflict collateral damage on an entire university. What the new legislation offers such groups is the opportunity to inflict damage preemptively on our entire educational system.
Despite its narrow defeat in the California Senate Education Committee, SB 5’s supporters clearly will not disappear quietly. If this and similar bills pass, who gets hired and what gets taught could be decided not according to academic and intellectual criteria but by pressure groups, many of whose members are failed academics driven by crassly political motivations. Society would pay the price.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English literature at UCLA. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times and is reprinted by permission of the author.