The AFT Responds

, Barbara McKenna, Leave a comment

Your analysis of the short item in the Academic Freedom Forum column and your snippet-like recounting of our phone conversation is disingenuous. It’s also off the mark, as my colleague over at Free Exchange on Campus so thoroughly documents. I stand behind the overall point: de Russy and Horowitz are proponents of a policy that would effectively interfere with what college instructors do in a classroom, teach. Further, the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, which would invite elected or appointed officials into the classroom as buffers in the student-instructor learning relationship, is just one tool in a larger campaign to squelch students’ access to the free exploration of ideas—conservative and liberal, popularly accepted and controversial.

Learning what one believes and acquiring the skills to discern truth–to the extent that truth can be known—is at the heart of a liberal education. An educated and discerning citizenry is the heart of democracy. Bringing state and national legislators into the picture in the way envisioned by the ABOR reduces rights, it does not protect them. It is a political campaign that faculty, student and civil liberties groups are committed to opposing.

As you say, much of the language of the so-called Academic Bill of Rights is benign, a restatement of principles already observed in academia. What is not benign is the advocacy of ABOR’s proponents for an external policing agent to be involved in hiring, promotion and curricular decision making. That’s why one of AFT’s leaders, AFT vice president William Scheuerman, president of United University Professions at SUNY, calls the bill a “stealth attack” on academic freedom. It is dangerous and would represent a tyranny over academic free speech. Such external meddling is anathema even to those who lead colleges and universities, notwithstanding the American Council on Education’s misguided (in my opinion) adoption of some of the ABOR language.

What Scheuerman has also said is that the so-called Academic Bill of Rights is a “solution in search of a problem.” No matter how much energy Accuracy in Academia, Students for Academic Freedom, David Horowitz, Penn. state rep. Gib Armstrong or a certain SUNY trustee expend to prove otherwise, two facts remain: Almost all colleges and universites already have policies in place that provide students a process for challenging faculty actions and grades that the student feels to be unfair. Out of hundreds of thousands of classes, students and opportunities, it appears that a minuscule number of challenges are made. These points came through loud and clear during the extensive hearings conducted this past year by a committee of the Pennsylvania legislature, as I expressed to you in our conversation, Mal, which you so selectively recounted.

While the item “Name that Zealot” is a bit of playful irony on the part of AFT On Campus, there is nothing playful about the commitment of the AFT’s leaders to oppose those who would restrict academic freedom. First in 2004, “Opposition to Outside Control Over Academic Decision Making Under the Banner of Intellectual Diversity,” and again in 2006 “Opposition to the So-called Academic Bill of Rights and Support for the Campaign for Free Exchange on Campus” the AFT membership has passed resolutions directing the national organization to fight the efforts of folks like you, de Russy and Horowitz who are advance people in the ABOR campaign. I invite you to read the substance of these resolutions. Our members, and those of the hundreds of thousands of other organizations in the Free Exchange coalition, understand what is at stake in this battle.

Ms. McKenna is an editor at the American Federation of Teachers. For another take on the Pennsylvania hearings, you can read the dispatches of Julia A. Seymour, a staff writer at AIA when the meetings took place.