The "Academic Bill of Rights"- Coming to Your Campus

Legislative proposals with this righteous-sounding title have been introduced in 28 states over the past four years. While no state legislature has actually adopted the proposals, their proponents have not given up. Similar proposals may be offered on your campus by student organizations or even student governments. It is important that both you and your students understand what's involved in this "Academic Bill of Rights", and the new-for-2007 ACTA version that they call "Intellectual Diversity" legislation.

These proposals originated with David Horowitz, a left-wing radical turned conservative pundit, who believes that college and university faculties are not sufficiently diverse (politically speaking), and that a lack of political diversity skews or limits the education being received by the next generation.  After the ABOR campaign began to lose steam in 2006, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni stepped in with very similar legislation of their own.  Better connected politically, ACTA has been savvier about how it presents its proposals - though still ultimately unsuccessful.

In each of the 28 state legislatures, faculty and administrators asked for evidence of a local problem, questioned the need for legislation, and argued against government intervention in campus and classroom matters. Most states have tabled the issue. (See our state-by-state listing.)

On the surface, the Academic Bill of Rights may be attractive to many students and faculty. Some parts of the proposal reiterate principles to which most faculty subscribe. But other parts of the proposal reach into the classroom to suggest that what you teach, how you teach it, what you assign, and what you hand out, should be overseen by the administration which, in turn, should be committed to fostering "a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives."

We urge you to work with your faculty senate and/or local AAUP chapter to raise awareness of this issue and to respond to proposals of this kind. Resources (talking points, references, resolutions adopted on other campuses) are available.

Summary of the "Academic Bill of Rights" Proposals

"The Academic Bill of Rights ... threatens to impose administrative and legislative oversight on the professional judgment of faculty, to deprive professors of the authority necessary for teaching, and to prohibit academic institutions from making the decisions that are necessary for the advancement of knowledge... The AAUP has consistently held that academic freedom can only be maintained so long as faculty remain autonomous and self-governing." (Most responses in this section are drawn from the AAUP Statement on the Academic Bill of Rights.

The "Academic Bill of Rights" proposals list the following rights:

A right of "access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion." This section states that institutions should foster a "plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives." The problem, according to the AAUP Statement, is that "it invites diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession. Measured in this way, diversity can easily become contradictory to academic ends."

A right to grading based on "reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects they study" and not on their "political or religious beliefs." AAUP's Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students agrees that students should be free of unfair academic evaluation. "Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion, but they are responsible for learning the content of any course of study for which they are enrolled." Campus grievance processes are generally available to students. These processes usually support fair grading without infringing on the pedagogical judgment of the faculty. The legislative proposals would infringe on faculty rights by encouraging administrative oversight over this pedagogical function.

A right to be free of "instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to the subject of study..." The problem is: Who is to distinguish between proper pedagogy and improper "indoctrination?" According to the legislative proposals, the question would be determined first by student complaint, and then by the administration or the courts. But according to the AAUP statement, this distinction "is to be determined by reference to scholarly and professional standards, as interpreted and applied by the faculty itself."

A right to have faculty in the classroom "make their students aware of serious scholarly viewpoints other than their own" and to have "curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences [that] respect all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints." This provision is the most directly intrusive into the prerogatives of the classroom teacher. Who determines the "range of human knowledge"? Who would enforce this rule? Most likely, the administration, in order to avoid suit.

A right to have hiring, firing, promotion, and tenure decisions for faculty (and inclusion in committees that make such decisions) ... made on the basis of competence and appropriate knowledge in their field of expertise, not on the basis of religious or political beliefs. While the basic principle is sound, the Academic Bill of Rights is an "improper and dangerous method for its implementation," because of its reliance on administrative and legal intervention.

A right to have student fee funds distributed on a "viewpoint-neutral basis," maintaining a "posture of neutrality" with respect to political and religious opinions. The law on this subject is well settled in the 2000 Supreme Court case, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Scott Southworth, et al. The United Council of University of Wisconsin Students describes the Court's guidance on "viewpoint neutrality:" (http://www.unitedcouncil.net/resources/southworth.shtml)

And finally, notices of student and faculty rights should be included in course catalogues, student handbooks, and on the institutional website. Most campuses have student and faculty handbooks, printed and on their websites, describing the full range of faculty and student rights. Encourage your students to know and understand their rights and responsibilities.