Emboldened by political victory, the right has gone hunting in the last refuge of the liberal elite–our universities–to smoke out radicals. Everyone knows about Ward Churchill, whose talk at Hamilton College was canceled once a student Googled an essay of his that mentioned “little Eichmanns” in the World Trade Center. Bill O’Reilly attacked, and Governor Bill Owens demanded that the University of Colorado fire him. Also consider Oneida Meranto, a political science professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Conservative students complained about her liberal bias in class and got support from reactionary ex-radical David Horowitz, who is promoting an “academic bill of rights” in state legislatures. There’s also Elyse Crystall, an English professor at the University of North Carolina, who objected to the comments of a “white, heterosexual, Christian male” in her class. She got bad press, hate e-mails and the attention of Representative Walter Jones, who persuaded the Office for Civil Rights of the US Education Department to investigate. She was found guilty of harassment.
The ivory tower is now face to face with politics. If there’s any doubt, just consider Larry Mumper, state senator from Marion, Ohio. Well-liked among colleagues, he’s served since 1997 without much controversial legislation to his name. Now he’s known for Senate Bill (SB) 24, an academic bill of rights that would require “curricula and reading lists” at all Ohio colleges (public and private) to “provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints” (calling all publishers of Holocaust deniers and flat-earthers!). The bill argues that faculty should “not infringe the academic freedom and quality of education of their students by persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.” One fellow state senator told me that SB 24 came “out of the blue.” He was used to talking about soybeans and crop labeling with Mumper, not this.
Mumper’s comments to the press illustrate how unprepared he was for attention. He explained to the Columbus Dispatch that “80 percent or so” of professors “are Democrats, liberals or socialists or card-carrying Communists,” as if for a moment he forgot what decade he lived in. When a journalist asked him if he had ever met a communist, Mumper explained the term was a euphemism for “people who try to over-regulate and try to bring in a lot of issues we don’t agree with.” At the same time, he admitted that “we’re going to put in some ways to monitor classrooms” to enforce the academic bill of rights. The irony of this was noted by numerous commentators.
Mumper told another reporter that funding cuts were “always in the back” of his mind. He elaborated, “Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies that their parents voted us in for?” One of Mumper’s co-sponsors explained that parents were tired of paying taxes for education “and then finding out their kids are being taught things that do not reflect their family values.” It’s as if Sinclair Lewis came back to rewrite Babbitt with its central character winning public office.
The state senators opposing SB 24 speak of a “coordinated national campaign.” They’re right. A right-wing infrastructure has been hard at work on this issue. Most important are David Horowitz and his organization Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), which has been documenting cases of alleged liberal bias in the classroom on its website. Now they’re pushing the academic bill of rights, which they argue is necessary to protect students who would otherwise fall prey to the liberal professoriate. In my own university newspaper, conservative students likened their cause to the civil rights movement.