Insert Comma logo
Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Safeguarding academic freedom

Policies ensure professors are politically correct

By Leigh E. Rich

Several presidents of Colorado’s state-sponsored higher education institutions testified before a joint session of the Senate and House education committees yesterday on how they are safeguarding the academic freedom of their students and protecting diversity—including “intellectual and political diversity”—as encouraged by Senate Joint Resolution 04-033 that was passed by the General Assembly last April.

The resolution, sponsored by Senate President John Andrews and Speaker of the House Lola Spradley, among others, commends the institutions for signing a so-called Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that stipulates, in part, that “no student should be penalized because of political opinions that differ from a professor’s.”

The need for such a resolution, its backers say, came to light during the past academic year when some of them were apprised of complaints students at several institutions had lodged against their professors.

According to Andrews, “Just this month we’ve heard about a Marxist instructor at CSU berating a young woman veteran, a law professor at CU saying Republican students are racists and Nazis, and a Metro faculty member telling her class that conservatives can’t think.”

Andrews, who is occasionally a part-time instructor at the Colorado School of Mines, used the names of the students and the instructors allegedly involved in these instances during the joint session and quoted from e-mails and other correspondence he’s received.

“Without specifics and case studies, we’re not going to get anywhere today,” he said, while citing alleged statements made by a CU property law professor about how “the ‘R’ in ‘Republican’ stands for ‘racist.’”

When the student disagreed with the instructor after class, Andrews said, the professor allegedly responded, “Well, there are plenty of other Nazis like you out there.”

“We don’t live in a world where this is acceptable,” Andrews emphasized, though admitting that “it’s not easy for a university instructor to challenge thought and at the same time respect the diversity of political opinions in the room.”

Other, less egregious examples of academia not equally embracing all political groups also have occurred. Earlier this week, Andrews said, former Army Green Beret and John Kerry supporter Jim Rassman spoke to Colorado Statue University students, visiting a classroom before speaking at an open forum.

Andrews deemed it “inappropriate” for Rassman “to be in a political science class that morning” and hypothetically asked the joint session whether it would be appropriate to invite Bush advisor Karl Rove to be a guest speaker in his classroom.

Answering his own question, Andrews deemed this a “gray area.”

Additionally, the joint resolution also encourages each college or university to “review its student rights and campus grievance procedures to ensure that intellectual and political diversity is explicitly recognized and protected.”

Members of the education committees heard testimony from CU President Elizabeth Hoffman, CSU President Larry Penley, UNC President Kay Norton and interim MSCD President Ray Kieft about how such student grievance procedures have been amended and publicized to both students and faculty in light of the MOU.

Penley said the MOU has been published in Colorado State University’s catalog as well as on its Web site, and all students and staff have been notified of its existence via e-mail.

“Every faculty member and every student should be aware of that memorandum, unless they’re not reading their e-mails,” Penley told the committees.

Hoffman testified that the University of Colorado is “proactively working” on this matter and has provided an online guide for students concerning the grievance process. The Boulder campus, moreover, has commissioned a diversity task force and has issued a formal statement “that all students at all times have the right to lodge a complaint,” said Michael Grant, CU-Boulder associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education.

The statement and information about the MOU was sent via e-mail, Grant said, adding half-jokingly that it could be a challenge to persuade students to read a message with the term “memorandum” in the headline.

Mark Heckler, CU-Denver vice chancellor of academic and student affairs, said that his campus’ “student right to know” policy has been amended since the MOU. Similar changes also have been made to the non-discrimination statement at the Colorado Springs campus.

The Metropolitan State College of Denver’s student handbook and its Web site also have incorporated changes in accordance with the MOU, Kieft said.

And the leaders from these institutions spoke to having discussed the amended policies with new students and new faculty during recent orientations.

Only the University of Northern Colorado hasn’t made any sweeping changes, since its current policies “are appropriate and comprehensive,” Norton said. “Our … policy specifically includes political ideology.”

Playing a bit of the devil’s advocate, Sen. Ken Gordon and Sen. Sue Windels both raised the issue of whether professors will have to walk a fine line when expressing their opinions in class or using Socratic methods to encourage critical thought.

Penley admitted that “certain classes … may necessitate revealing one’s own biases to facilitate the communication,” and Kieft told the Colorado legislators that recent events on his campus—where an instructor received “death threats … via a chat room and various e-mails” after she was formally reprimanded by Kieft for publicly referring to a student’s academic record—“just sent a real chill across campus. It has had a chilling effect.”

When Rep. Nancy Spence, chair of the House education committee, took issue with Kieft’s characterization of making instructors more aware of their statements as “chilling,” both agreed that such an effect, if it prevents discriminatory situations, can be a positive response.

All agree that more needs to be done.

“There is work to do to ensure good teaching occurs,” Penley said.

“This doesn’t seem to be a matter in which closure can be achieved anytime soon,” Andrews agreed.

Rich, L. E. (2004, September 10). Policies ensure professors are politically correct: Memorandum of Understanding to bring political balance to universities. The Colorado Statesman, pp. 1, 6.

Comments are closed.