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November 23, 2005

Is political bias a problem in higher ed?

The state’s public universities don’t need the legislature’s help when it comes to academic freedom. That was the overwhelming message brought by professors, students and administrators to a select House of Representatives education subcommittee in a two-day hearing, held Nov. 9 and 10 in the William Pitt Union.

The Pitt hearing was the first of four to be held statewide, but before it was over, several committee members questioned the need to continue. “It’s plain and simple a witch hunt, looking for a problem so maybe we can create a solution,” said Rep. John E. Pallone (D-Westmoreland Co.).

Rep. Dan A. Surra (D-Clearfield Co.) agreed. “The more I listen to what we’re doing in these hearings and the more people who testify, this is the educational equivalent of the committee searching for Bigfoot,” Surra said. “I just have to continue the question whether we should keep doing this. We’re going around the state wasting time and taxpayers’ money for what?”

The fact-finding expedition was authorized by House Resolution 177, which passed in a 108-90 vote in July.

The select committee, composed mainly of members of the House education committee’s higher education subcommittee, is investigating whether students are evaluated on their subject knowledge rather than ideology.

It also is charged with determining whether faculty in the state’s higher education institutions are hired based on competence rather than political viewpoint, and that students and professors are able to freely express independent thought in an atmosphere that encourages the development of critical thinking.

The first day of testimony was dominated by Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars; and American Association of University Professors representatives Joan Wallach Scott, professor of social sciences at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., and Robert Moore, assistant professor of sociology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

As the first speaker on Nov. 10, Provost James Maher provided the panel with a detailed outline of the University’s policies on academic integrity. During public comment sessions that followed the invited speakers’ testimony each day, several others from the Pitt community confirmed his view that the University’s existing rules are sufficient.

“Given that some of the legislators have those concerns, I’m glad to have an opportunity to address them,” Maher said later. “I think we got a good hearing.”

HR 177 author Rep. Gibson Armstrong (R-Lancaster Co.) introduced the bill after he was contacted by a number of college students who said they had been singled out because their religious or political views diverged from their professors’.

The committee also heard formal testimony from Burrell Brown, professor and chair of business and economics at California University of Pennsylvania, and Steven Jackson, chair of political science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

* Stephen H. Balch

Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, testified to the committee that the state has a responsibility to ensure its public colleges and universities stick to the business of education, rather than activism or advocacy for partisan causes.

Balch stopped short of calling for the legislators to run the state’s universities, but said that, as those holding the purse strings, they have a duty to oversee what goes on.

“They should realize that there is a contractual relationship between themselves and the state’s public universities, that a university’s autonomy is dependent on its living up to certain basic commitments and that the due diligence of the legislature must certainly extend to ascertaining whether or not they are so doing,” he said.

Critiquing language he viewed as biased in the mission statements and policies of a number of college and university programs, including Pitt’s School of Social Work, women’s studies program and cultural studies program, Balch argued that universities are to be places of education and that promoting a particular viewpoint is inappropriate.

“If they’re going to be education institutions, then they have to let their faculty and staff know they’re not in the business of advocacy and activism,” he said. “They’re not in the business of promoting particular policies but they’re in the business of opening people’s minds and engaging in teaching and research.”

He cited statistics that show an under-representation of conservatives in academia and argued that the left-leaning tendencies among college professors may prompt conservatives to choose other careers, creating what he views as a lack of intellectual diversity.

“In spite of diversity programs aimed at gender or ethnic variety, no such campaigns seek intellectual diversity,” Balch said.

“When institutions get into the activism and advocacy business, they are sending signals to people who disagree with them that there is no place for your kind here,” he said.

He said students should be exposed to a range of viewpoints and expressed concern that they might not get that variety.

“The nature of education is to open minds,” he said.

Committee member Michael Diven (R-Allegheny Co.) questioned Balch on how to determine the difference between poor scholarship and political discrimination.

“How do we quantify if there are students that have a dissenting political viewpoint from their professors whether or not they’re being graded on their scholastic performance or the ideals they hold individually? How do you identify whether somebody’s being discriminated against because they don’t share the same viewpoint a their professor?”

Balch suggested the committee commission some studies of its own. “You’d have to ask students directly,” he said.

“I don’t have one parent, one student who has ever come to me to complain about this,” said Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny Co.) a Pitt trustee whose legislative district includes a number of college and university campuses. “I never heard anybody talk about the problems that you’re bringing to the table,” he told Balch.

Frankel also expressed concern that any legislation to oversee academic freedom could put Pennsylvania at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting the best scholars and students. That could translate into a loss of research dollars, he said, noting that Pitt ranks seventh nationwide in garnering National Institutes of Health grants.

“Your remarks assume a student who comes to the University or any of our (state) institutions is basically a blank slate that is going to be indoctrinated by slanted professors, without the intellectual capacity to question and challenge and interact and dialog with professors,” he said.

Frankel said he has been impressed with the students he’s come in contact with when he’s lectured. “I have always been challenged by all kinds of different points of view in those environments,” he said.

* Provost James Maher

Students at Pitt who disagree with their professors’ political views are not penalized for their outspokenness with lower grades, Provost James Maher told a state legislative committee at the William Pitt Union Nov. 10.

“We’ve not been able to find a case that would involve a student who was asserting that he or she had been discriminated against in the grading of a class on the basis of their political opinions,” Maher said.

Maher emphasized the University’s commitment to allowing the free exchange of ideas while protecting individual rights.

“Universities really are intended to be meeting grounds for all of the very complicated arguments that characterize the human condition,” he said.

Maher said it is difficult to get people to discuss deeply held differences of opinion without having some people getting upset in the course of the discussion. “We do work hard at making it possible for those discussions to go on in a productive way within the University….” he said.

“We are trying hard to teach the students who are under our responsibility to learn how to be very forceful advocates for their own opinion while respecting the rights and the opinions of the people with whom they are arguing,” he said.

Maher outlined for the panel the detailed grievance procedure (available in the faculty handbook on line at that covers both students and faculty who feel their academic integrity has been breached.

“The policies that frame these discussions have evolved with time but the idea that there should be protections for the rights of every member of the University as the discussions go on is not a new one,” he said, pointing to formal academic integrity policies adopted at Pitt four decades ago.

Maher said most disputes are settled quickly, either with the professor involved or the department chair.

“Most academic integrity complaints involve cheating and exams,” the provost said. “I have not yet been able to find a case, of the many student complaints — and we are not short on student complaints — I have not yet found one that claimed a given student was being mistreated for political opinions.” Maher said he knew of no such cases that had risen to the formal procedure level and that his request to the regional campuses and schools within the University yielded none as well.

“I don’t think that means it could never happen. I think we’ve got procedures in place, and policies in place that provide protections, precisely because it is imaginable that it could happen but I do believe the faculty are sufficiently aware of how seriously we take this issue; that they do regard it as an important part of their professional responsibilities not to get into a stance where they could be legitimately charged with having violated a student’s rights in that way.”

In questioning following his statement, Maher expressed confidence that students are indeed aware of their rights.

“If we were to ask just 15 or 20 or a hundred kids outside of this building, how many of them do you think would be aware of the process they can avail themselves of?” committee member and House Resolution 177 author Rep. Gibson Armstrong (R-Lancaster Co.), asked.

Noting that academic integrity is covered when incoming students are told about policies on plagiarism and cheating, Maher said, “If you ask them questions about what their rights were, I think most of them would have a pretty clear understanding.”

Speaking in support of status quo

Several Pitt students and faculty members spoke in favor of the status quo when the House select committee opened the floor for public comments.

Undergraduate student Rachael Dizard expressed concern that well-intentioned legislation could backfire. She defended her professors, whom she said had never graded her unfairly because of her viewpoint.

“I very much support (HR 177’s) purported goal,” she said. “My main concern is that House Resolution 177 will have the polar opposite effect on the academic and intellectual climate at colleges and universities than it intends to have.

“The best professors that I have had here at the University of Pittsburgh are also the ones with whom I’ve argued the most. I have never been penalized for disagreeing with one of my professors,” said Dizard during the Nov. 10 public comment session.

Don Martin, an associate professor in the School of Education, said students want to know their professors’ viewpoints.

“Students want to know your position,” he said. “They find you to be fraudulent if you don’t express your point of view. That doesn’t mean that you’re trying to indoctrinate them.”

Second-year law student Grant Hackley said the University’s grievance policy is effective. He argued against state oversight on academic integrity issues.

“In my opinion, there is no need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “Instituting an additional level of oversight in the University system does just that, and places students with minor complaints about political disagreements in the driver’s seat.

“Political disagreement is not discrimination, unless a student can show some form of oppression or a reduction in their grade for a course. If they can show such unfair treatment, then a true injustice has occurred. But the current grievance policy is in place to exactly address this injustice,” he said.

He also praised his teachers. “While a professor may never be able to completely squelch a deeply rooted political belief, it has been my experience that professors do not abuse their positions as educators for the purpose of indoctrinating students to a particular ideology or set of beliefs,” Hackley said.

Associate professor of sociology Lisa D. Brush reiterated that clear policies are in place at Pitt.

Brush, president of the University’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said, “The select committee can rest assured that academic integrity in the pursuit of excellence in teaching and research is well-protected. Freedom of inquiry thrives in classrooms, study groups, laboratories, workshops and studios at Pitt.

“Additional government oversight is neither necessary nor desirable,” she said.

‘Student Bill of Rights’ could pose problems for higher ed, provost warns

Although the document is not being formally considered by the state legislature, Provost James Maher addressed his concerns about the “Student Bill of Rights” that is being used as a touchstone in discussions on academic integrity and alleged liberal bias on college campuses across the nation.

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. It is available on line at

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.”

“If you read it and don’t know much about how universities function, it kind of looks like apple pie and motherhood,” Maher said. “It has a difficulty, though, that frightens people who care about the health of universities and it has resulted in a number of organizations that represent universities’ interests in public discussion formulating an alternative document.”

The American Council on Education, along with 29 other academic organizations, has countered with its own document, adopted in June. (The ACE document is available at by searching on the term “Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities.”)

Rep. Gibson Armstrong, (D-Lancaster Co.), author of House Resolution 177, had concerns about people who may be ostracized because of their viewpoint and perspectives. Maher said the ACE statement addresses the issue.

The provost said he didn’t doubt the sincerity of supporters of the Student Bill of Rights, but said his concern revolves around what could happen if it should become law.

If the Student Bill of Rights were adopted by the legislature without careful thought, “we believe there would be very important areas of education that would no longer go on,” Maher said.

“The difficulty involves the ability of universities to offer courses that would go into any subject in great depth,” he said.

“The Student Bill of Rights would create a situation where every course that raised an issue that was controversial would have to give essentially equal weight to every viewpoint,” he said.

“That’s fine if you’re doing a survey course, and in fact in a lot of our survey courses we really strive for that,” Maher said. But, more focused courses could violate a strict reading of that policy.

A strict interpretation of the Student Bill of Rights could require a professor in a religion course, for example, to offer multiple viewpoints rather than offer an in-depth study of one particular faith, Maher said. “If you’d be required to study all other religions in that course instead of offering other courses, it would be a staggering burden,” he said. “It’s essentially impossible to meet such an expectation.”

Joan Wallach Scott, former chair of the American Association of University Professors’ committee on academic freedom and tenure, told the committee: “We do not think that either balance or all points of view are necessary in every course nor are they the right of students.

“It’s one thing to insist as we do that there be respect for differences of opinion, another to say that all opinions have the same weight,” she told the committee. The AAUP is among the organizations that back the ACE document.

Maher asked committee members to keep the alternate document in mind if issues about the Student Bill of Rights crop up during their discussions.

He urged them to remember that “the attractive features of the Student Bill of Rights are not controversial at the University.” The ACE document, Maher said, retains the positive points included in the Student Bill of Rights.

“It does emphasize the importance to appropriately show all viewpoints but also does allow for distinctions to be drawn in order to be able to drill down deeper in a discussion,” Maher said.

“I don’t think that we would have to change any of our policies if the alternate to the Student Bill of Rights were to become a guideline nationally. But we would worry, if the Student Bill of Rights was not moderated in a way that would allow us to have the courses that went into individual opinions in greater depth, that we would find that we were unable to provide the instruction people really need to have from good universities.”

— Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 7

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