In a debate sponsored and moderated by University of Montana President George Dennison, representatives from two academic organizations exchanged barbs Wednesday evening over academic freedom at universities.
The heated debate was timely, as the Montana Legislature is considering a bill that would require professors to state their political affiliations. Although House Bill 525 did not specifically come up during the debate, the discussion dealt with many of the same issues.
The debate centered on institutional autonomy, the philosophy that universities should not be influenced by outside interests. Similarly, House Bill 525 would restrict university professors from expressing their opinions until first ensuring that students were exposed to a range of other opinions.
Roger Bower, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, accused the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of trying to shape curriculum with their “extremist agenda.”
“I think ACTA is sending this message to the public that their purpose is to shape public opinion and create a public opinion that is not favorable towards faculty,” Bower said. “Not just public opinion, but political opinion and congressional opinion as well.”
Anne Neal, president of the ACTA, rejected Bowers’ comments while claiming that Bower assumed academic freedom is a “God-given right.”
“What he is prescribing is not institutional autonomy. He is prescribing freedom from accountability,” Neal said.
But Bower also said that the AAUP and the ACTA share some common ground regarding the current state of higher education.
“Both organizations believe students have the right to learn without fear of being punished by their professors if their views are different from a faculty member,” Bower said, likely in reference to House Bill 525.
President Dennison said he felt that the discussion was necessary.
“I think these are issues that have commanded attention all across the country. We ought to be talking about these kinds of issues,” Dennison said.
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