Policymakers | Intellectual Diversity

Intellectual diversity or intellectual insult?

INSIDE HIGHER ED   |  April 16, 2007 by Scott Jaschik

The Missouri House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would require public colleges to report regularly on how they promote and protect “intellectual diversity.” While the bill still must be approved by the Senate and the governor to become law, House passage was a major victory for groups seeking legislative help to change campus climates they view as hostile to conservative ideas.

The bill outlines a series of topics on which colleges could report, and one of them has academics afraid that “intellectual diversity” means that biology professors who teach evolution as more than just a theory competing with creationism may find themselves having to defend themselves against charges brought against them by complaining students. The legislation passed by the House says that among the things colleges could include in their reports are “intellectual diversity concerns in the institution’s guidelines on teaching and program development and such concerns shall include but not be limited to the protection of religious freedom including the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant.”

The phrases—some suggesting this as a requirement and others suggesting that it isn’t—are confusing, but academic groups note that it is rare for public colleges to be told or even urged that they must protect the teaching that the Bible is literally true. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, called the bill as a result “one of the worst pieces of higher education legislation in a century.”

A number of faculty and student groups have been working against the bill. But support in the House was strong, in part because of a continuing controversy over the social work program at Missouri State University. Last year, a student complained that she was being forced to express views that differed from her religious views, and this month an outside panel that reviewed the social work program at Missouri State found that students felt fearful of expressing views that differed from their professors, especially on spiritual and religious matters.

The bill passed by the House is called the “Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act,” in honor of the Missouri State student who raised the issue last year. (Critics of the legislation don’t defend the way Brooker was treated, but say that her case is an exception. Further, they point out that her case has been resolved, and the department involved has received considerable scrutiny and faces likely changes, without legislation.)

The Missouri House vote was praised by Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Alumni and Trustees, which drafted versions of the bill (without calling for Biblical inerrancy) that have been introduced in a number of state legislatures this year. “For years, the academic establishment has refused to take action to protect the free exchange of ideas,” Neal said. “It is no wonder that now, confronted with real problems, Missouri legislators have asked for a measure of accountability.”

The “intellectual diversity” bill is similar to the “Academic Bill of Rights” —the brainchild of the activist David Horowitz—in that both seek to challenge what their sponsors view as liberal domination of campus intellectual discourse and what the sponsors perceive as a hostility to any ideas that don’t conform. The two measures also are similar in their repeated references to academic freedom—references that many faculty critics see as a cover for the measures’ agenda.

While the Academic Bill of Rights called for certain principles to be put in place by colleges, the intellectual diversity bills generally just require colleges to report on measures they take to promote intellectual diversity. The legislation offers suggestions for topics that the reports might include, such as “the current state” of intellectual diversity on campus, policies related to tenure and promotion, the range of ideas represented in campus speakers, policies related to teaching and course evaluations, and so forth.

Proponents say that these reports would not actually limit any college from doing anything, but would draw attention to a pervasive liberal bias on campuses. In theory, knowledge of such bias might encourage some colleges to change—or let students know of colleges with greater or lesser degrees of intellectual diversity.

Faculty groups, which have led the opposition to the intellectual diversity bills, say that they agree completely that campuses should have a range of views, that professors and students should be evaluated without any political litmus tests, and that colleges shouldn’t have any party line. But faculty groups argue that the reports called for by the legislation would actually create ideological litmus tests—as college administrators would feel forced to classify professors, student groups or outside speakers as “conservative” or “liberal” in ways that oversimplify and that encourage a bipolar view of the world at a time when many people would like to encourage campus debates to be more nuanced and subtle. Further, the idea that administrators might be drawing up reports in which they rank faculty members’ politics in any way sounds a little too much like the era when people were asked “are you a member or have you ever been a member…” questions.

“The ACTA legislation encourages institutions, boards, and ultimately, legislators to micromanage classrooms,” according to an analysis prepared by Free Exchange on Campus, which is supported by a coalition of academic and civil liberties groups. “Who is to determine if a particular class or program is ‘intellectually diverse’ enough? If a board or legislator feels that something is missing in a class, would they have the prerogative to insist institutions change the class or program to meet their definitions?… ACTA legislation would make faculty feel they are under a microscope and cause them to restrict their teaching.”

In pushing the legislation, the ACTA and its legislative supporters have made much of the Brooker incident and of the recent report about it, saying that there is clear proof of an ideological and in this case anti-religious bias at play. But the University of Missouri Intercampus Student Council disputed that the Missouri State situation reflects a widespread problem. A statement adopted by the group said that while there may be “very few instructors” who cause problems, information is readily available for students on how to register a grievance. The bill is a “massive overreaction,” the statement said.

And all of that opposition predated the amendment on the Bible, which has added to faculty and student anger over the bill.

Jeremy Bradley is a biology major and a senior at Lincoln University, in Missouri, where he is president of the student government. Bradley said that while he believes students should be exposed to a range of views on various issues, he does not want his biology professors telling him that evolution and intelligent design and creationism are all just a bunch of theories backed by different people. “In the science classroom, the theory of evolution should be taught. Maybe you can teach intelligent design in a philosophy classroom,” Bradley said.

If his professors feel that excluding intelligent design or creationism from science classes would get them branded as opposing intellectual diversity, Bradley said he fears the impact on his degree. “People assume I know and understand certain things, including evolution,” Bradley said. “If they couldn’t assume that, that would really damage the credibility of my degree.”

Nelson, of the AAUP, said that it was “particularly remarkable that the bill includes belief in the literal truth of the Bible under the heading of intellectual diversity.” He added that “requirements for balance in the curriculum and respect for intellectual diversity, in hiring, and in public speeches on the campus—coupled with reporting requirements—effectively mean that Missouri would no longer have any system
of secular public higher education. Missouri’s fine universities would become religious schools if this bill were to be approved by the Senate.”

Neal of the ACTA countered that view. She noted that the legislation offers a variety of ways for colleges to make reports, so no one way is necessarily a requirement. “The legislation does not dictate what the institutions must do or say. It respects institutional autonomy since it’s entirely up to the institution to decide what and how to report,” Neal said.

Further, she said that if colleges are upset with the legislation, they should have cleaned up their acts earlier. Said Neal: “If institutions adequately addressed these issues voluntarily, legislation of the sort proposed in Missouri and elsewhere would not be necessary.”


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