The New PC
Another recent study heralded as proving leftist campus domination was sponsored by the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni; it sought to document not the political orientation of professors but, more decisively, the political intimidation of students by faculty. Claiming an "error rate of plus or minus four," the sponsors assert that their study demonstrates widespread indoctrination, that almost 50 percent of students report that professors "use the classroom to present their personal political views." According to the sponsor, "The ACTA survey clearly shows that faculty are injecting politics into the classroom in ways that students believe infringe upon their freedom to learn."
Closer examination of the study reveals dubious methodology. Most questions were asked in a way that nearly dictated one answer. Students were asked if they "somewhat agree" that "some" professors did this or that. A key statement ran: "On my campus, some professors use the classroom to present their personal political views." And the possible responses ran from "Strongly agree" and "Somewhat agree" to "Somewhat disagree" and "Strongly disagree." Of the 658 students polled, 10 percent answered "Strongly agree" and 36 percent "Somewhat agree," which yields the almost 50 percent figure that appeared in headlines claiming half of American students are subject to political indoctrination.
Yet the statement is too imprecise to negate. Asked whether "some" professors on campus--somewhere or sometime--interject extraneous politics, most students (36 percent) respond that they "Somewhat agree." That is the intelligent and safe answer: "somewhat" agreeing that "some" professors misuse politics. To partially or even completely negate the statement would imply that no professors ever mishandled politics. Yet a vague assent to a vague assertion only yields twice as much vagueness. The statement does not so much inquire whether the student him- or herself directly experienced professors misusing politics, which might be more revealing. Yet these murky findings are heralded as proof of campus totalitarianism.
These scattered studies are only part of the story. A series of articles, books and organizations have taken up the cause of leftist campus domination. An outfit called Students for Academic Freedom, with the credo "You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story," is sponsored by the conservative activist David Horowitz and boasts 150 campus chapters. It monitors slights, insults and occasionally more serious infractions that students suffer or believe they suffer. The organization provides an online "complaint" form, where disgruntled students check a category such as "Mocked national political or religious figures" (mocking local figures is presumably acceptable) or "Required readings or texts covering only one side of issues" and then provide details.
At the organization's website the interested visitor can keep abreast of the latest outrages as well as troll through hundreds of complaints in the Academic Freedom Complaint Center. Most listings concern professors' comments that supposedly malign patriotic or family values; for instance, under "Introduced Controversial Material" a student complained that in a lecture on Reconstruction the professor noted how much he disliked Bush and the Iraq War. A very few complaints raise more serious issues, and some of these are pursued by other Horowitz publications or are seized on by conservative columnists and sometimes by the national news services. A Kuwaiti student who defends the Iraq War recounts that he fell afoul of a leftist professor in a government class, who directed him to seek psychological counseling. "Apparently, if you are an Arab Muslim who loves America you must be deranged." To his credit, Horowitz's online journal also ran a story from the same college about a student who was penalized after he defended abortion in an ethics class conducted by a strident prolifer [for background on Horowitz, see Scott Sherman, "David Horowitz's Long March," July 3, 2000].
Virtually all "cases" reported to the Academic Freedom Abuse Center deal with leftist political comments or leftist assigned readings. To use the idiom of right-wing commentators, we see here the emergence of crybaby conservatives, who demand a judicial remedy, guaranteed safety and representation. Convinced that conservatives are mistreated on American campuses, Horowitz has championed a solution, a bill detailing "academic freedom" of students; the proposed law has already been introduced in several state legislatures. Until recently, if the notion of academic freedom for students had any currency, it referred to their right to profess and publish ideas on and off campus.
Horowitz takes the traditional academic freedom that insulated professors from political interference and extends it to students. As a former leftist, Horowitz has the gift of borrowing from the enemy. His "academic bill of rights" talks the language of diversity; it insists that students need to hear all sides and it refashions a "political correctness" for conservatives, who, it turns out, are at least as prickly as any other group when it comes to perceived slights. After years of decrying the "political correctness police," thin-skinned conservatives have joined in; they want their own ideological wardens to enforce intellectual conformity.