The House Education Committee passed a much-debated bill Tuesday that critics say would limit academic freedom on Montana’s college campuses.
The bill must now be debated on the floor of the House and pass two more readings before it can be heard in the state Senate.
Rep. Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman, said at the bill’s hearing Friday that his intellectual-diversity bill doesn’t “hammer” at higher education, but sheds light on it.
“I have been accused today of hammering higher education. But I would like to display the hammer of this bill,” Koopman said as he produced a flashlight from his pocket and shined it around committee chambers. “I think we should turn it on, because light and knowledge and truth are good.”
The bill, House Bill 525, calls for the creation of an office to monitor the progress of intellectual diversity on campus that would require campuses to file an annual report on exactly what measures are being taken to promote intellectual diversity.
Some say the bill could limit freedom in the classroom inhibits academic freedom.
“We value our professors’ opinions highly, because without them in the classroom we don’t have academic freedom,” said Scott Martin, a student representing Montana State University campuses in Billings, Havre and the Great Falls College of Technology. “This bill promotes intellectual stifling and ignorance in the classroom.”
University of Montana President George Dennison said reporting classroom methods of promoting intellectual diversity could be a problem.
“In my view, mandated reports will impose a burden of unknowable, unknown and likely illegal dimensions,” Dennison said. “Rather than require a balance of political opinion in the classroom, we need no political opinion.”
Others argued that the need for professors to restrain their opinions wasn’t an issue.
“This bill is unnecessary in light of continuing excellence of each of the institutions in the Montana University System,” ASUM President Andrea Helling said. “Come to any of our campuses.”
Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said that the bill was really designed to ask questions that might not get asked otherwise.
“If the Legislature doesn’t inquire about academic malpractice, who will? There is no way this one-sided coercive atmosphere can be conducive to a good education,” Neal said. “Students are not empowered to think for themselves when orthodoxy subtly restricts the subjects taught, discussed and researched.”
The other supporters of the bill included some of Montana’s better-known faculty, including MSU-Bozeman associated English professor and published author Paul Trout and UM Law School professor Rob Natelson.
Trout said that some departments are worse than others when it comes to politicizing the classroom.
“Departments in the social sciences and humanities are often lopsided. What’s noteworthy is that these departments create the attorneys, the teachers and the other opinion-shapers of the future,” Trout said.
“Campuses and departments are increasingly becoming enclaves of group think, which insures that certain ideas are not entertained, certain claims not made, certain questions not asked,” he said.
Trout’s comments seemed to be embodied in the presence of Natelson. In 2004, Natelson took his own case of alleged political discrimination before the Board of Regents to try to overturn the University’s decision not to appoint Natelson to a position he applied for. Natelson said at the time that he was denied the job because of his conservative political beliefs.
“I have taught at the University of Montana for 20 years now. I wish I could say I was happy to be here,” Natelson said. “The point I’m trying to make is that you don’t want to send students to a university where there aren’t a diversity of opinions.”
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