On Wednesday November 9 and Thursday November 10, 2005 AAUP leaders testified before the first public hearings of the Pennsylvania House Select Committee on Student Academic Freedom on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The committee heard from a total of six scheduled witnesses over the two days in addition to several individuals who spoke during the public comment times set aside at the end of each day’s proceedings.
On Wednesday, the committee heard first from Dr. Stephen Balch, President of the National Association of Scholars. Balch’s presentation focused on what he contended was a widespread ideological imbalance among the faculty around the nation that has substituted advocacy and activism for education. Balch made extensive use of website materials and a general hostility to a number of disciplines in particular which he contends are destroying the standards of higher education. He was especially disturbed by women’s studies and social work. His testimony was contradicted by all the witnesses who followed.
On Wednesday, Dr. Joan Wallach Scott delivered a statement on behalf of the national AAUP, and Dr. Robert Moore delivered a statement on behalf of the state division of AAUP. In addition Dr. Lisa D. Brush, President of United Faculty, the AAUP chapter at the University of Pittsburgh delivered a statement during the public comment time on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the committee heard from James Maher, provost of the University of Pittsburgh; Dr. Burrell Brown, professor of labor and human resources at California University of Pennsylvania, and Vice President of the state APSCUF; and Grant Hackley, a 2nd year law student and editor of the Law Review at the University of Pittsburgh.
With the exception of Dr. Balch, the rest of the witnesses all opposed any attempt by the committee to develop further guidelines for academic institutions. In varying degrees all stressed the principles of academic freedom, faculty governance, and the autonomy of the academy based on the professional standards of the disciplines. They also clarified that existing policies and practices at institutions across the commonwealth already protected students’ legitimate concerns.
At this point the committee’s thrust seems to be an examination of already existing policies to protect student freedom of expression. Rep. Tom Stevenson, the chair of the select committee stated that he wanted to focus on policies as opposed to “he said, she said” stories. Many of the minority members of the select committee criticized the very existence of the committee and wondered why it was spending time and taxpayer money on what could charitably called (in the words of several members and witnesses over the two days) a solution in search of a problem. There were repeated references to the fact that this member or that member had not heard one complaint from students or parents about restrictions on student academic freedom. And the fact remains that after one informational meeting (in Harrisburg on September 19, 2005 where David French, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave a presentation on FIRE’s take on student academic freedom and freedom of expression) and two days of public hearings in Pittsburgh not one instance of such activities have been raised.
The original sponsor of the resolution creating the committee, Rep. Gibson Armstrong, represented a strong exception to the general tone of the hearing. He picked up several points that Dr. Balch had raised and probed witnesses seeking to find out their particular definitions of key terms such “education”, “advocacy”, and “activism.” He seemed especially eager to discover the coded meaning within academia of terms such as “social and economic justice” and seemed especially put out when the witnesses refused to reveal that to him. Dr. Scott turned the question around and asked Armstrong what he meant by social justice. The next day Dr. Maher replied by stressing that philosophers have been debating the meaning of social justice since at least the ancient Greeks.
Balch and Armstrong made a major point of the imbalance between partisan donations among the faculty. For example Balch and the NAS examined FEC records among faculty in Pennsylvania and found that many more faculty members gave to Democrats than to Republicans. (Neither Armstrong nor Balch seemed to think that there was anything chilling about a legislative committee examining the private political activity of public employees.) Armstrong questioned Maher on the propriety of out of 141 faculty and staff from the University of Pittsburgh who made donations, 111 gave to Democratic candidates and 30 to Republicans. Rep. Dan Surra (a Democrat from Elk County) was more impressed by the fact that there were 4000 faculty at Pitt and only 141 made donations. He commented that there might be an untapped market for legislators. His joke highlighted the fact that the low rate of political giving was far more significant than the imbalance toward Democrats. Other witnesses stated other possible reasons for the imbalance that relied more on social science questioning not confirming a predetermined position.
The Select Committee was created by the passage of HR 177 earlier this summer, with the general charge
to examine the academic atmosphere and the degree to which faculty have the opportunity to instruct and students have the opportunity tolearn in an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth at State-related and State-owned colleges and universities and community colleges in this Commonwealth.” There are specific questions contained in the resolution:
faculty are hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure based on their professional competence and subject matter knowledge and with a view of helping students explore and understand various methodologies and perspectives;
students have an academic environment, quality life on campus and reasonable access to course materials that create an environment conducive to learning, the development of critical thinking and the exploration and expression of independent thought and that the students are evaluated based on their subject knowledge; and
that students are graded based on academic merit, without regard for ideological views, and that academic freedom and the right to explore and express independent thought is available to and practiced freely by faculty and students;
The committee plans to hold an additional hearing in January somewhere in the eastern part of the state, and another in March in the Harrisburg area. Then there may be one additional hearing, but in any event the committee will issue a report by November 2006.