Legislators Take Aim at “Liberal” University Profs

PHOENIX

Conservative state lawmakers are targeting what they see as left-leaning university professors, pushing a series of bills in recent and upcoming sessions designed to ensure that students are not unduly influenced by professors’ beliefs.

The push has raised concerns among the academic community about academic freedom, with many worried the push will put legislators and administrators in charge of the college classroom.

Conservative lawmakers have floated or are planning a host of proposals. Some laws would require alternative assignments or restrict would students could be required to read. Another law would mandate that alternative viewpoints be included in social science classes.

Among the proposals was a bill that failed in the last legislative session allowing students to refuse assignments they find sexually offensive. The Arizona board of regents reacted by passing a resolution supporting academic freedom but requiring advance notice to students of a course’s content.

Another bill that did pass required American flags and the U.S. Constitution to be displayed in all classrooms.

Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, plans to introduce an “Academic Bill of Rights” next year designed to keep liberal bias out of the classroom.

Patterned after a nationwide effort pushed by conservative activist David Horowitz, versions of the rights bill have been considered by lawmakers in 18 states, although only Georgia approved one. But university systems in Colorado, Ohio and Tennessee adopted policies that contain some of its central tenets.

The efforts reflect the distrust some ranking Arizona legislators feel for professors.

“University professors lean liberal and not conservative,” says Sen. Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, chairwoman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee. “They contribute to society accepting immoral behavior. [The classroom] is where they get to the mind.”

Gray says university students are not provided examples of “what a good, normal family life is.”

Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, heads two higher-education committees and says conservative students have a difficult time.

“I have heard more and more over the years that there is less and less tolerance for conservative opinions,” she says.

Wanda Howell, a University of Arizona professor, argues that the bill would put state government and university administration in charge of the classroom. Professors would lose control over what they teach and how they grade.

Professors say the requirement for academic diversity in the bill of rights could force them to censor materials.

Horowitz insists his bill is “viewpoint neutral.”

“It is to ensure that professors take a scholarly, academic approach in the classroom, so professors teach students how to think, not what to think,” Horowitz says. “It goes for right-wingers [too]. It goes for anyone.”

But professors widely see the bill as an attempt to subvert academic freedom, the opposite of what Horowitz claims.

Ruth Jones, an Arizona State University vice provost for academic programs, says the conservative lawmakers’ beliefs that liberal bias is widespread, and that conservative students are penalized academically if they speak up, is overblown.

She sits on a standards committee that would handle the types of cases that conservatives say are rampant in college classrooms, but has never had one.

“The question is: Are we dealing with reality or perception?” Jones says. “Is there a common denominator among students complaining? Sometimes, students are used [by others] to promote an agenda. We need to look at that.”

— Associated Press

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