A kick where it's needed
When is the word "diversity" not tolerated on campus? When someone tries to put the word "intellectual" in front of it. The debate over David Horowitz's campaign for intellectual diversity has been raging in Colorado for five months. By spring or fall, the debate may come to an intellectually not-very-diverse university near you. Horowitz, the veteran conservative activist, is promoting an "Academic Bill of Rights" to protect students and professors from the aggressive leftist monoculture that dominates campuses today. Though clearly taking aim at the left, Horowitz scrupulously framed the bill in language that would protect everyone on campus, left and right. The text says, "All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise," never on the basis of political or religious beliefs. Stanley Fish, one the best-known professors on the left, says that it's hard to see how anyone who believes in the distinctiveness of academic work "could find anything to disagree with here."
The fairness of the language hasn't done much to mollify the left, partly because Horowitz unleashed a barrage of statistics to show how lopsided liberal universities are in hiring professors, picking outside speakers, and granting honorary degrees. He says there are 10 Democratic professors for every Republican one, with the disparity rising sharply at many elite universities.
Students themselves now look up the political affiliations of professors and complain about indoctrination that passes for teaching. (Check out www.no indoctrination.org for detailed student reports of unbelievable professorial drivel.) Members of the Republican Club at Wells College, an all-female institution in upstate New York, reported that 92 percent of their professors in the humanities and social sciences were registered either as Democrats or with splinter parties of the left. (A month later, the women's application to be recognized as a campus club was rejected.) Last week conservative students at Duke announced that the university's eight humanities departments contain 142 registered Democrats and only eight registered Republicans. The Duke Conservative Union also charged that a number of humanities departments "have become increasingly politicized over the past few decades" and that this politicization has had "a significant impact on the daily workings of faculty members." Student challenges such as this are beginning to raise temperatures on campus. So are the spread of satirical bake sales opposing affirmative action and resistance to speech codes, speech zones, and the defunding of conservative political and religious groups. Republicans at the University of Colorado-Boulder now have a Web site for reports of bias based on political beliefs. In the current climate, sites like this are likely to spread.
Running afoul. The one worrisome aspect of Horowitz's bill of rights is that he took it to the Colorado legislature as a bill to be passed. The bill's version of Horowitz's text says the academic freedom of students "will not be infringed by instructors who create a hostile environment" toward their ideas. But "hostile environment" is a dubious and elastic legal construct. It can easily be stretched into restriction of stray remarks. Will professors run afoul of the state for offhand comments that offend the most sensitive person in class? Probably not, but why put the provision into law? Horowitz is right to say that "universities should not be indoctrination centers for the political left." Once the student radicals of the 1960s became professors and took control of hiring committees, dissenters from the rising campus monoculture became rare. Words like "knowledge" and "excellence" faded, replaced by "transformation" and "social change" (i.e., politicization).
But it's doubtful that legislation is the way to go. It would be far better for Colorado to pass a "sense of the legislature" resolution backing the academic bill of rights in principle but making no attempt to legislate reform. Apologists for wayward campuses say these matters are best left to university administrators. Yes, but the administrators are the ones who created the current ideological mess. Pressure must be brought to bear to open up the humanities curriculums from their narrow postmodern and race-and-gender obsessions. But that pressure should come from protests and persuasion, not the involvement of politicians. Student governments at several universities have adopted a "Student Bill of Rights" modeled on Horowitz's. Think of his bill as a model for more protests and a badly needed kick in the shins for university administrators.
This story appears in the February 23, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.