Last week marked the final set of hearings on academic freedom by members of the Pennsylvania state house. The Select Committee on Academic Freedom met at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) on May 31st and June 1st to hear administrators, union officials, professors and students.
Dr. Peter H. Garland and Dr. James D. Moran came representing the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and said that it is their goal “to ensure that the more than 107,000 students attending the 14 PASSHE Universities receive the very best education possible” and said that each school already has policies in place to protect free and open debate.
“Universities help students to become thinkers and doers, and to become advocates for the causes in which they believe. Yes, we do want to teach students to be advocates—not for a specific cause, but for the causes they consider important. Active civic engagement is the essence of American democracy,” said Dr. Garland, the PASSHE Vice Chancellor for Academic and Students Affairs.
Rep. Gibson C. Armstrong, R-Lancaster, asked how promoting student advocacy works.
We try to teach students to be active citizens and express opinions, back them up and make sure they have the tools to be advocates, Garland responded.
While the question was not raised to Dr. Garland by any of the state representatives, a fair question would be whether or not professors trying to create advocates will unfairly push them toward advocacy along their (the professor’s) ideological lines rather than the student’s.
However, this was a question posed by Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich on insidehighered.com on June 2 in their article: From Ideology to Inquiry.
Colby and Ehrlich explained that they spoke at a national conference two years ago about their study called the Political Engagement Project, which they are just now finishing. In their speech two years ago, they tried to generate interest by including an example.
“We told what we thought was a compelling story about a Duke University student in one of the programs, called Service Opportunities in Leadership. The student interned in a New York City textile workers union, and subsequently helped organize Students Against Sweatshops at Duke, which led to a new code of conduct for Duke licensees, the first in the country,” recall Colby and Ehrlich.
But it was then that they were questioned about what Duke does to ensure that conservative students can find such advocacy internships and why they only mentioned a liberal example and not a conservative one.
“The question caught us off guard, however, and caused us to reflect hard on issues of ideological and political bias. Without intending to do so, we had implied that working in a union and protesting sweatshops were ideological prototypes of the kinds of political engagement that we were promoting,” Colby and Ehrlich explained.
The subtle and often-unrecognizable influence of personal ideology is the problem the Select Committee seems to be unwilling to behold. Before hearings got underway, the committee decided that the purpose would be to collect information on policies and procedures that protect students, but in so doing they not only ignored the elephant in the room, they put up a screen to hide him.
While some testifiers like Mark Bauerlein tried to talk about the elephant, most simply repeated the same two messages: 1) the legislature has no right to tell educators what to do. 2) there is not a problem with liberal bias or indoctrination.
Many at the HACC hearings, including Garland and Moran, told the committee that it is not the legislature’s job to police educators. That the self-governance of higher education is what keeps it free and functional.
“At the end of the day, it is primarily the faculty in the academic disciplines that determine those standards. Judgments about curricula should flow from the prevailing knowledge and diversity of thought within each discipline, as determined by the body of experts in each field of study across the country and often, the world…You and I cannot decide that. We should not try. We are not experts in the field,” said Garland.
Representatives Quigley and Yudichak both made statements that educators should remain in control of academic standards and curricula.
But the question in Pennsylvania remains: Are educators policing themselves and should they remain primarily free of legislative accountability?
Julia A. Seymour is a staff writer for Accuracy in Academia.