Thursday, July 21, 2005

How higher education is viewed by some in Congress

The online magazine Inside Higher Ed reported on the House Education and Workforce Committee as "it was considering hugely important
legislation that determines how the government spends tens of billions of dollars a year on students and colleges" in a "session to amend the Higher Education Act". Two contradictory bits stand out in particular. First, the debate over the "watered-down version of David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights" that was to be attached to the act, to protect conservative students from alleged abuse by "liberal" professors who supposedly run rampant in grading them poorly simply on the basis of their political views:

One issue emerged Wednesday that college groups had thought was largely settled. Last month, a group of higher education associations issued a statement aimed at altering a resolution included in the Republican leaders’ Higher Education Act legislation that mirrored the Academic Bill of Rights that is rattling around several state legislatures. The House committee’s leaders applauded the colleges’ statement and largely incorporated it into the latest drafts of their bill. The language makes the point that academe is not monolithic ideologically and that colleges can — without the government — deal with professors (a distinct few, according to most academic leaders) who punish students for their views.

But at the urging of faculty unions and other groups that had not approved the statement, Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment Wednesday that aimed to drop the compromise language, which he said “interferes with the longstanding principles of academic autonomy.” “There is no place for this kind of ideology in the Higher Education Act,” Tierney said.

Added Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.), a longtime administrator at Southampton College: “The fact that we are including this suggests that we are accepting the fiction that this is a problem.”

As the Democrats spoke, Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, looked like his head might explode. “It’s embarrassing that people are going on record against this,” he sputtered, characterizing the mistreatment of conservative students by liberal professors as a “sweeping and pervasive problem.”
Students, he said, “should know that the United States Congress stands behind them.”

The tide turned a bit when Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) said he thought a bigger problem were the “thought police” — small groups of students at various campuses who are creating blacklists of professors whose views they don’t agree with and trying to get the instructors fired. Souder said he “supposed that professors ought to have this right, too,” and so Tierney withdrew his amendment “temporarily” with the understanding that Democrats and Republicans might work together to alter the bill’s language to ensure that professors’ free speech rights are protected, too.

The second debate, ironically and frighteningly, was a proposal by a conservative legislator to, yes, punish professors on the basis of their political views (and to legislate just what appropriate political views are):

[The committee] Gave reasonably serious consideration to an amendment by Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) that would have withdrawn funds from international education programs that engaged in “anti-American activities.” Disbelieving Democrats repeatedly evoked the House Un-American Activities Committee and many Republican members looked embarrassed and shook their heads as Norwood, occasionally drawing titters from the audience, stuck to his guns in urging a crackdown against programs and professors who “teach distrust of America.” The measure failed, but 10 of the panel’s nearly 40 members voted for it.


Norwood’s proposal to cut back on anti-American activity, which would give a new international education advisory board that the legislation would create the power to define and identify such activity. He said that many international studies programs in the United States “teach distrust of America” and “teach young Americans to be against their own country.”

Asked repeatedly for examples, he demurred, drawing criticism from skeptical Democrats. “I am opposed to letting any committee of Americans define what is un-American for another group of Americans,” said Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.).

Again, I fear, this is just one more example of a broader trend in which politicians supported by certain constituencies and monied interests seem intent on pushing anti-intellectual, anti-rationalist (if rationality means "open to critique"), and anti-critical restraints on education, research, and media production. Individually, such efforts might sometimes seem absurd, but they should be analyzed and mobilized against as a coordinated whole.

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