Trustees | Intellectual Diversity

Colleges strive to ensure intellectual diversity

USA TODAY   |  June 18, 2009 by Mary Beth Marklein

Dozens of public and private colleges have taken steps to ensure their students are exposed to a range of intellectual views on campus, and to ensure that students can freely express their views, says a report being released Thursday.

“If you want to produce informed citizens, you have to hear both sides” of an argument, says Anne Neal, president of the Washington-based non-profit American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA plans to mail its report, based on a review of more than 200 schools, to more than 9,000 trustees as part of a campaign to “reinvigorate the free exchange of ideas” on campuses, she says.

The report highlights 40 examples at public and private institutions in 24 states, including a Tufts University lecture series that features speakers, such as historian Shelby Steele and author Salman Rushdie, who hold “provocative and perhaps controversial points of view,” and a University of Missouri system requirement that orientation programs explain what students can do if they think they are being penalized because of their beliefs.

Despite such cases, “the free exchange of ideas…is in peril in today’s academy,” says the report. It cites a 2006 case in which a social work student sued Missouri State University after she said her grade suffered when she refused to sign a letter supporting gay adoption as part of a class project. (The case was settled out of court.) The University of Delaware revised an orientation program in 2007 after some students and parents said the exercises sought to shape their attitudes on sensitive issues, including race and sex. Some free-speech groups argue that ACTA mostly targets liberal faculty, but Neal notes that it recently criticized a decision by private Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., founded by evangelical Christian Jerry Falwell, to end recognition of a College Democrats club. While private universities “do have the right to restrict student and faculty expression…the decision is nonetheless unfortunate, as it is likely to make for a less vibrant intellectual environment on campus,” an ACTA blog post says.

In recent years, ACTA has promoted a number of legislative efforts to require public universities to report what they do to prevent bias against students because of their political and religious beliefs.

No proposals have become law, but Neal says legislative pressure has led to some reforms. In South Dakota, the board of regents requires faculty at its six universities to include a “freedom in learning” statement in course outlines that says, in part, that students “should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study.”

Critics of such policies say there’s a reason not one of more than 30 states has passed bills introduced since 2004 related to free speech on campus: they represent “a manufactured controversy that distracts from the real issues affecting higher education,” says Megan Fitzgerald of the Chicago-based Free Exchange on Campus Coalition, a non-profit founded in 2006 to rally against groups such as ACTA.

With a few high-profile exceptions, the coalition says, independent investigations of a liberal bias on individual campuses have turned up nothing.

That may be subject to interpretation, however. ACTA says, for example, that a 2007 campus survey of students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that “at least 13% of undergraduates felt they had witnessed at least one classroom situation in which unpopular or provocative ideas seemed to have been unwelcome, either because of the instructor’s viewpoint or viewpoints of most students.” But Ron Strauss, the school’s executive associate provost, says the survey “was very valuable in that it helped us determine that this was not a major issue and it didn’t sort by political point of view.”

Neal says it’s “simply disingenuous” to deny problems.

“Our report shows the different ways institutions are indeed taking voluntary concrete steps to address this,” she says.


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