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October 27, 2005

State hearings on liberal bias set for Nov. 9 & 10

The first public hearing to investigate whether liberal bias exists among professors at Pennsylvania’s State System and state-related universities is set for Nov. 9 and 10 in the William Pitt Union ballroom.

The state House select committee on student academic freedom will accept public testimony on both days of the hearing.

The Nov. 9 agenda also features presentations by Steve Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, and Joan Wallach Scott of American Association of University Professors. Both are to participate in question-and-answer sessions with the committee. The Nov. 9 session begins at 1 p.m.

Pitt Senior Vice Chancellor and Provost James V. Maher will address the committee and answer their questions at 9 a.m. Nov. 10.

House education committee research analyst Dustin Gingrich said three additional hearings are to be scheduled in two-month intervals in the Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley areas.

The committee was formed following the House of Representatives 108-90 passage in July of House Resolution 177.

HR 177 calls for a study to determine:

• that faculty are hired and evaluated based on their professional competence and knowledge,

• that students are evaluated based on their subject knowledge and have “an atmosphere conducive to learning, the development of critical thinking and the exploration and evaluation of independent thought,”

• that students are graded based on academic merit rather than ideology and that both students and faculty are able to freely express independent thought.

The resolution offers professors the chance to defend themselves if they are accused of bias during the hearings.

“If an individual makes an allegation against a faculty member claiming bias, the faculty member must be given at least 48 hours’ notice of the specifics of the allegation prior to the testimony being given and be given an opportunity to testify at the same hearing as the individual making the allegation,” the resolution states.

The committee, composed mainly of members of the House education committee’s higher education subcommittee, is to report its findings and recommendations by June 30.

The resolution was introduced by Rep. Gibson Armstrong (R-Lancaster County), who said he had been contacted by a number of college students who felt they were penalized because their religious or political views differed from those of their professor.

“Students attending our state-owned and state-related institutions should be free to express their thoughts and ideas as their professors teach them to think critically,” he stated in a prepared release following the passage of the resolution.

“There is a national trend toward indoctrination, rather than education. The committee will take a look at what is happening in our college classrooms to ensure that Pennsylvania does not have a problem in this area.”

At Pitt, the University-wide academic integrity code addresses such issues, allowing flexibility for individual schools to fine tune the policy to apply to their unique situations. The code is outlined in the faculty handbook, available on line at

Provost Maher said the overall University policy is used as a template. Individual schools within the University may use it verbatim, add to it or modify it, subject to review by the University to ensure that any alterations or additions are in alignment with the original policy.

The policy states, in part: “In general, we seek to preserve the traditional freedoms and duties associated with academic endeavors. The University should work to preserve the rights and responsibilities of faculty and students in their relationships with one another. Just as faculty and students must be free to seek truth and to search for knowledge with open minds, they must also accept the responsibility that these activities entail, maintaining the highest standards of integrity, mutual respect and honest inquiry.”

In addition, the policy instructs faculty members “to base all academic evaluations upon good-faith professional judgment,” and “not to consider, in academic evaluation, such factors as race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, national origin and political or cultural affiliation and lifestyle, activities or behavior outside the classroom unrelated to academic achievement.”

Students or faculty members may report violations of the policy to the dean of their academic unit. If the matter is not resolved, a hearing process can be pursued.

Maher said few complaints go to a formal level although he would not elaborate on how many are reported each year.

“Most are resolved in the professor or department chair level,” he said.

“We try to make sure everyone’s academic freedom is being respected,” Maher said. “We work hard at making faculty understand they have to be very careful to respect the right of students to hold their own opinions, particularly religious or political (views).”

University Senate Vice President Michael R. Pinsky agreed that the University has an “excellent policy” with regard to academic freedom.

“The University is positioned to prove they respect the rights of individuals,” he said. More common academic integrity problems involve incompetent teachers or cheating students, not the squelching of ideas, he said.

“The whole concept of academic freedom is tolerance of ideas. You also have to have academic rigor,” he said.

Pinsky, the former chair of the University Senate’s tenure and academic freedom committee, defended the state’s right to investigate whether college students are having their freedom impaired, but labeled the issue as “the religious right trying to flex its muscle.”

Pinsky said the potential for state legislation presents “profound threats to academic freedom” and cautioned that “anything that is written (into law) will be very hard to rescind.

“If the fallout is some sort of change in the (University) academic freedom policy, the University Senate will have to look long and hard at it,” he said.

While the hearings across Pennsylvania are designed to provide information the House may use in deciding whether to take action, a growing number of states are passing legislation based on the Academic Bill of Rights (available at The document was developed by conservative activist David Horowitz amid allegations that liberal university professors have unfairly penalized conservative students for expounding on differing viewpoints.

The document encourages protection of students and professors from “political, ideological or religious orthodoxy,” seeks to ensure that students are graded based on knowledge rather than political or religious beliefs and encourages the presentation of a variety of viewpoints.

It also precludes teachers from using their courses “for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.”

Critics of the document say it will squelch academic freedom rather than encourage it.

A statement by the American Association of University Professors labels the Academic Bill of Rights an “improper and dangerous method” of promoting neutrality and criticizes the guidelines for “(inviting) diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession.”

The AAUP statement goes on to say the document undermines academic freedom. “It threatens to impose administrative and legislative oversight on the professional judgment of faculty, to deprive professors of the authority necessary for teaching and to prohibit academic institutions from making decisions that are necessary for the advancement of knowledge,” it states.

For additional information on the Pitt hearing, contact committee chairman Rep. Thomas L. Stevenson’s (R-42nd) Harrisburg office at 717/787-2047.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 5

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