Three Clicks and Academic Freedom Is Out

A 2008 report from a libertarian think tank in North Carolina set the stage for a problematic kind of “transparency,” where posting faculty syllabi would “expose a professor’s deviation from normal expectations.”
By Debra Ellen Clark

This September, public universities in Texas will be required to post on their Web sites detailed syllabi for all undergraduate courses, a curriculum vitae for each regular instructor, a departmental budget report for each course offered, and reports of student course evaluations. And, according to a new state law, all of this must be “accessible from the institution’s Internet website home page by use of not more than three links, searchable by keywords and phrases, and accessible to the public without requiring registration or use of a user name, a password, or another user identification.”

These changes are to comply with House Bill 2504, signed into law on June 19, 2009. It makes Texas unique in mandating that comprehensive information about classes and faculty be posted on a public institution’s Web site.

The new law is a hybrid of seemingly good intentions and bad ones—an apparent desire for transparency concealing an agenda with disturbing implications for academic freedom. As so often in politics, this is the story of a two-pronged approach—ideological and rhetorical—that has blossomed into an alarming political agenda. The Texas conference of the AAUP has called it a “clear assault upon the principles of academic freedom long supported by [the] AAUP.” But Texas institutions are nonetheless hurrying to produce Web-friendly and faculty-friendly forms and links in order to comply with the new law.

Transparency as a Conservative Tool

The rhetoric of transparency traces back to the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Many states subsequently passed sunshine laws allowing journalists to obtain government documents in a timely fashion. While transparency is essential to journalists’ reporting of government activities, a few activists, notably in Texas but with ties to other states and to national groups, have adopted the rhetoric of transparency to further their own conservative agendas. The path from FOIA to HB 2504 is evident when one examines the politics behind the new Texas law.

One of the people involved in its passage was Elizabeth Young, past state chair of the Young Conservatives of Texas, a student activist organization dedicated to the preservation of conservative and traditional values. Young is now a higher education policy analyst for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. In April 2009 she testified before the Texas State House of Representatives’ Higher Education Committee in favor of HB 2504, opening her remarks by saying that the Sunshine Survey, a tool developed by journalists, demonstrated that “Texas is the national leader in open government” and that this was “a good first step to becoming more transparent.” She then cited a 1996 Texas comptroller’s report, noting that “in-class teaching is an activity state funding directly supports, creating a legitimate interest in how it is conducted.”

Young offered the following example: “Posting ‘significant professional publications’ could also play a role in a student’s decision making process. If a student is looking to take an African history course, he would most likely choose a professor who had sufficient knowledge of this subject rather than an African history professor whose research focuses on Russian history. HB 2504 would simply allow students to make more informed decisions throughout their enrollment process, giving them more control over the education for which they are paying.”

The Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information Online, to which Young referred in her testimony, details stateby- state accessibility of government information online. The study was developed and written by Sunshine Week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee. It showed that many states lagged in providing government information. Though spearheaded by journalists, the Sunshine Week Web site notes that its purpose is to allow people “to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.”

Ideological Agenda Making

But where did the Texas bill really originate? Not with journalists. The second prong to this story involves the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a libertarian think tank based in North Carolina. The Pope Center has been calling for “educational transparency” across the United States for years and has published several online articles and reports on the issue. The Pope Center advocates what it terms a transparent “consumer-oriented” approach to higher education. For example, in July 2008 the center published a report by its senior writer, Jay Schalin, titled, “Opening Up the Classroom: Greater Transparency through Better, More Accessible Course Information.” Many of this report’s recommendations showed up almost verbatim in the Texas legislation.

Schalin’s report begins,

Greater transparency and accountability are coming to higher education, one way or the other. Students, their parents, and government officials want to know whether their money is purchasing a quality education or merely financing an expensive system of meaningless paper credentials. In that spirit, this report proposes a major step toward improving transparency and accountability, one that cuts to the very core of academia’s purpose: making knowledge about the subject material taught in classes more readily available to students and the general public.

The Pope Center then recommends

posting course syllabi—the descriptions that go beyond the sketchy catalog summaries—on the Internet, with access open to the public. The posting should occur at the time registration opens for the next term’s classes, typically two to five months before that term begins, and the syllabi for all courses should be available at a single Web site. The syllabi need not be the full documents with schedules used in class. But at the very least each should offer a detailed class description and a full list of all reading selections.

The Texas law mandates that course information be made available to the public on the institution’s Web site for each undergraduate classroom course offered. The site must also include a syllabus that (1) provides a brief description of each major course requirement (including each major assignment and examination), (2) lists any required or recommended reading, and (3) provides a general description of the subject matter for each lecture or discussion.

Posting faculty syllabi, says the Pope Center report, will “expose a professor’s deviation from normal expectations. . . . Parents would be able to better decide whether their tuition payments are going for a good cause or are being wasted on mental pablum.” Putting syllabi on the Internet will allow students “to avoid redundancy and eliminate intellectual ‘holes’ in their education.” The report’s closing argument suggests that higher education watchdogs will be better able to monitor online syllabi to see which schools of thought a particular college adheres to and whether “professors are using the classroom to further their own political agendas.”

The Pope Center ran a story several months later on its Web site about HB 2504 and the bill’s author, Republican state representative Lois Kolkhorst. The article begins with an anecdote about one of Kolkhorst’s legislative aides, Taurie Randermann: “When . . . Randermann, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, discovered that her course on ‘Communication and Religion’ was actually about Wiccans, Heaven’s Gate, and other fringe cults and religions, she kicked off a major change in the way that Texas’s colleges and universities inform students about classes.”

Randermann explains in the article that while she wished she had had more information about the religion course, she did not inspire the bill. She says Kolkhorst had already been working on the bill for well over a year when she talked to her, and, while the Pope Center didn’t provide language, Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, Chris Steinbach, was the “primary liaison” who “coordinates all information between Kolkhorst’s office and The Pope Center.”

The process of passage was smooth. When the bill was presented to the state House Higher Education Committee, it was unanimously approved; it was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on June 19, 2009.

The Texas conference of the AAUP in June 2010 passed a resolution asking for the law’s repeal:

This logistically burdensome and unfunded legislative mandate constrains classroom innovation and faculty-student interaction while substantially raising costs. The bill has a chilling effect on the ability of students and faculty to openly and honestly discuss controversial subjects in the classroom. It allows persons opposed to open discussion of controversial scientific and cultural positions to target such discussions by requiring faculty to post detailed descriptions of material to be covered in their classes on keyword searchable websites. It is a clear assault upon the principles of academic freedom long supported by AAUP.

Another Battle?

The transparency bill may be only the beginning of modifications to Texas higher education, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation is still front and center.

The Texas House Higher Education Committee is currently in the midst of an interim legislative study to determine the feasibility of offering a curriculum that “emphasizes ethics, Western civilization, and American traditions” and that would satisfy portions of the Texas Core Curriculum at Texas public universities. Commenting on this recommendation, Young wrote on behalf of the Texas Public Policy Foundation that “our universities need to address this deficiency, and if they do not, the legislature should find ways to encourage universities to do so.”

Moreover, in April 2010 testimony before the Higher Education Committee, the Texas Public Policy Foundation called for a curriculum that emphasized ethics and American traditions in order to “improve society in the wake of moral muddiness.”

Debra Ellen Clark is associate professor of communication and digital media studies at the University of Houston–Clear Lake. She is the author of Mass Mediated Disease: A Case Study Analysis of Three Flu Pandemics and Public Health Policy, and she is currently researching social media policies and practices in the workplace. Her e-mail address is clarked@uhcl.edu.

 


Comments:

Debra Ellen Clark reveals the trend for increased transparency in higher education to be a right-wing agenda, which also propels a consumerist approach to education that's taking over our  universities.  As Clark shows, the transparency bill supposedly allows students to be able to examine our CVs so as to be able to choose the instructor with the greatest level of expertise in the topic being taught.  Leaving aside what should be obvious--that faculty, not students, have the expertise to judge who is and is not qualified to teach a course--there's something I'd like to tell Texas: If only most undergraduates actually chose instructors for their expertise in the field! Students' reasons for attending a specific college and signing up for specific instructors are themselves often so specious that we could just as easily insist universities team up with Facebook to provide "transparency" in students' motivations. For I'd like to know which students are on a campus for the academic rigor instead of the recreation complex, for the intellectual stimulation instead of the parties, for the political growth rather than the parking.  I'd also like to know who's taking a particular instructor for her or his expertise in the field rather than for the instructor's reputation as being an "easy A," for the "hotness" rating on ratemyprofessor.com, or because the course is offered late enough to allow the student to sleep in.  Perhaps the Pope Center is working on demanding this sort of transparency as well.

M.M.

 


SACS, our accreditation board, in Texas  requires that in order to be accredited, “ The institution ensures adequate procedures for safeguarding and protecting academic freedom.” (from SACS- Principles of Accreditation)  I find it ironic that, if the author of the above cited article is correct,  the state legislature has endangered a transcendent value that is essential for our institutions’ accreditation.

D.D.

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