ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACE’s Non-Statement

August 3, 2005 by ACTA

At InsideHigherEd.com, ACTA president Anne D. Neal parses the Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities recently issued by a coalition of education associations, among them the American Association of University Professors, the American Council of Learned Societies, the College Board, the NCAA, and the American Council on Education. Ostensibly intended as a ringing endorsement of academic freedom, the statement purports to address accusations that the contemporary academy is hostile to intellectual diversity and the free exchange ideas by stating a series of philosophical positions: that American higher education institutions are themselves diverse, dedicated to a variety of missions and purposes; that colleges and universities "should welcome intellectual pluralism and the free exchange of ideas" and that they should conduct debate in an atmosphere of "openness, tolerance, and civility"; that neither students not faculty members ought ever to be "disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions"; that not all ideas are of "equal merit" and that academic ideas should be held to the standards of the disciplines from which they derive, and judged accordingly; and that government should respect the independence and autonomy of higher education institutions.

Neal finds the statement lacking. She argues that it amounts to a series of platitudes and that it attempts to address a serious problem by merely seeming to address it:

The declaration acknowledges that "intellectual pluralism" and "academic freedom" are principles widely shared within the academic community. Yet there is nary a nod to the hundreds of widely-publicized cases of political pressure in the classroom that prompted the controversy in the first place.

For years, the higher education establishment has denied that there is a problem and engaged in a series of unpersuasive rationalizations to avoid facing the obvious facts. Roger Bowen of the American Association of University Professors has called studies about faculty political imbalance "wrongheaded" and claimed political affiliations of professors are of little consequence in the classroom. John Millsaps at the University of Georgia agreed: "we have no evidence to suggest that students are being intimidated by professors as regards students' freedom to express their opinions and beliefs." And Lionel Lewis in a recent issue of Academe went so far as to argue that political one-sidedness doesn't matter because college has no impact anyway. Nowhere did they argue that students will get a better education if they are exposed to a variety of viewpoints and learn to think for themselves.

Numerous surveys, reports, and case studies documenting the politically monolithic character of the faculty have mounted. A recent student survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni shows that many students believe they will be penalized if they have a point of view that differs from their professors.

Faced with this mounting evidence--and a growing number of state legislators who have begun holding hearings and passing resolutions--the higher education establishment figured it would be best to have a quick conversion, endorse intellectual "pluralism," and then go back to business as usual. The strategy is obvious: give lip service, get it out of the papers, do nothing.

Those claiming victory are right in that the first step to recovery is to admit that you have a problem. However, the ACE statement does not admit that there is anything more than a PR problem: "these issues have become public controversies." It does not address whether there is a lack of intellectual diversity or whether there are any victims of political intolerance at all.

Neal goes on to note other failings in the ACE statement. It fails to define "intellectual pluralism" while suggesting that the First Amendment might mean "different things to different people." It is paralytically vague in its failure to mention the mechanisms by which campuses institutionalize a particular orthodoxy, such as speech codes, one-sided panel discussions, newspaper theft, and the shouting down of speakers. It fails to outline a credible means by which complaints of ideological bias or political discrimination may be addressed. And, finally, the statement does not finally even stand by its own statements, concluding rather lamely that the points it raises are not hard and fast principles, but, rather, hypotheses that "deserve to be stated affirmatively as a basis for discussion ... on campuses and elsewhere."

Neal concludes with a damning question: "If they did not admit a problem, and did not define the goal of intellectual pluralism, and did not propose or even hint at specific ways to achieve intellectual pluralism, and really only proposed some discussion topics, what did they say?" The answer is a resounding nothing. Those who are concerned about the present political tilt on America's campuses should not be assuaged by the false reassurance of the ACE statement. It is in every way a document devoted to guaranteeing the continuation of business as usual.

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