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Council sparks debate over academic freedom

Marc Stier is a key player in Democratic city politics. He recently organized a grassroots organization called Neighborhood Networks, a coalition of hundreds of progressive activists who are pushing to reform city government by increasing competition among Democrats. He ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for state office last year and is regularly quoted in local media. He’s… Read more »

Marc Stier is a key player in Democratic city politics. He recently organized a grassroots organization called Neighborhood Networks, a coalition of hundreds of progressive activists who are pushing to reform city government by increasing competition among Democrats. He ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for state office last year and is regularly quoted in local media.

He’s also the associate director of the university’s intellectual heritage program, home to two courses every Temple student has to take.

But is Stier a threat to students who might hold views that differ from his own, possibly squelching classroom debate because of his politics?

In the eyes of the state legislature: possibly. In the eyes of Stier and his colleagues: no way.

State legislators and academic reform groups are increasingly concerned that university faculty might be disenfranchising students who hold conflicting views by creating a classroom environment that stifles intellectual diversity. Professors counter that professional standards and existing grievance policies – that all universities and colleges are required to have – are enough to both curb any slanted teaching methods and give students avenues to voice complaints.

What came of the legislators’ concern is House Resolution 177, sponsored by 43 state representatives – 37 Republicans and six Democrats. The resolution, passed in July, established a “select committee for academic freedom in higher education” that is conducting investigations throughout the state at public and public-related institutions like Temple.

The committee, which has so far only visited the University of Pittsburgh, holds hearings to ensure that faculty are promoting “independent thought” and are grading students based “on academic merit” and not on political persuasion.

And that’s exactly how Stier and his colleagues say they operate.

“It is my responsibility to have students think about the texts, not to give them one particular interpretation,” Stier said of IH literature, which includes Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi and Sigmund Freud. “What I do in the classroom is very different from when I’m giving a stump speech.”

The legislative panel chooses where to stop on its data-collecting tour, which can continue for another six months to a year before lawmakers on the committee report its findings to the state House, including suggestions for any corrective legislation. The committee’s next stop, slated for January, will be in Eastern Pennsylvania. It is rumored that Temple is a likely destination.

At the University of Pittsburgh’s hearing last month, representatives received testimony from Pitt administrators and other scholars who said universities can self-regulate and have little problem with faculty bias.

Any aggrieved Pitt students could have voiced complaints against faculty members, who also would have been given the opportunity to testify, but no students took advantage of the invitation.

A notable voice of dissent at the hearing was Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, a New Jersey-based group pushing to reform higher education.

Balch pointed most of his criticism toward Pitt, Penn State University and Temple, using Federal Election Commission data to show that recent political donations among faculty and administrators from the three universities benefited mostly Democratic candidates.

Balch said that out of 95 Temple faculty and staff members, 79 gave donations to Democratic candidates and only 16 to Republicans.

Though the ratio represented a small portion of total faculty, Balch testified that the numbers “can reasonably taken to be a reflection of underlying faculty sympathies overall.”

VOICE OF OPPOSITION

Judging by measures Temple faculty groups have taken to oppose the resolution, as well as responses from more than a dozen interviews with students and staff, the committee would likely hear resounding opposition to any state action if it stopped here.

Months before the state’s resolution was passed, the university’s Faculty Senate Steering Committee unanimously passed an opposing statement, which said in part that HR 177 “would constitute unwarranted and inappropriate government interference in academic matters.”

Faculty Senate President Jane Evans, who is also an art history professor, said existing grievance policies that are federally mandated by Title IX of the Education Amendments Act are built-in safeguards for students who might feel uncomfortable with a professor. Those laws, she said, negate a need for state involvement.

“I would rather see those safeguards stay in place than someone coming in from Harrisburg and saying, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing,’ and maybe not even understanding what I’m doing or what I’m trying to do with the students,” Evans said.

The last line of recourse for aggrieved Temple undergraduates is the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies. In more than four years at the office, Chris Dennis, associate vice provost for undergraduate studies, said he is not aware of receiving any grievances based on political grounds.

Dennis said university administration does not keep central records of grievances resolved at the department or individual college level. Because academic grievances deal with grades and “academic interactions,” Dennis said they are governed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and can therefore not be made public.

William W. Cutler III, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals, said the idea of politicians judging the merit of academics is “totally inappropriate.”

Legislators “don’t have the training to do that and they’re not doing it because they want to engage in reasoned or logical or persuasive evidence,” said Cutler, whose association represents more than 11,000 faculty, librarians and support staff on Temple’s campuses. “They’re doing it based on their political persuasion.”

But are politicians and groups like Balch’s who support the resolution off-base for targeting college campuses, which are typically regarded as left-leaning? State Reps. Thomas R. Caltagirone (D., Berks), and Thomas Creighton, (R., Lancaster) said in interviews last week that lawmakers have the right to observe the higher education process to ensure that professors aren’t molding the political values of students in their formative years.

Said Balch in an interview Monday: “I think the most important thing that would come out these hearings is the committee and House of Representatives, based on what the committee reports to it, sending a message to the universities in the state that there is a problem that needs addressing.”

Professors like Stier who are involved in politics outside of the classroom, as well as faculty accused of slanting their curriculum, say how they vote hardly affects how they teach.

Some professors, like Lisa Rhodes, acting dean of Women’s Studies, claim the resolution is nothing more than a right-wing push led by conservative activist David Horowitz to gain support for Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” which seeks to eliminate political bias in university teaching and hiring.

Rhodes was accused by Balch and Philadelphia Daily News columnist Nancy French last month of heading a leftist department, mainly because the program apparently invited a string of liberals to speak on campus over two years.

In response to the column, titled “Women’s studies: Sexist & lefty,” as well as Balch’s extensive testimony that referenced the Women’s Studies department, Rhodes and three Temple colleagues wrote a letter to the Daily News citing HR 177. They argued that the columnist and Balch seem “to be part of a nationwide push that has gained momentum in Pennsylvania for legislative intrusion into what some on the right see as liberal bias on campuses.

“This has the potential to undercut professional expertise with political allegation, and undermine public universities, a precious economic, educational, policy and analytic resource for the state,” Rhodes and fellow Temple professors Rebecca Alpert, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Joyce Lindorff wrote.

STUDENTS RESPOND

A dozen students said in interviews that they typically haven’t experienced much political bias in the classroom, with many agreeing that professors here are fair to students of all political stripes. There was some disagreement among students, however, on the benefits of the committee’s hearings.

Junior psychology major Marykate Burke said holding hearings on area campuses isn’t a bad thing, if there’s reason to believe that there is bias in the classroom.

“It seems kind of silly, but if they feel like something needs to be done then why not just check it out,” Burke said.

Others, like sophomore political science major Michael Ginda and senior secondary education and history major Tara Rubinstein, said professors generally challenge all sides of a debate and don’t try to overpower students with their own views. Both agreed that legislative action was unnecessary.

Although lawmakers offer a forum for student comment during campus hearings, students outside of these targeted universities seem to be unaware of the legislative movement. This includes, at least for now, most Temple students.

“This is going on without the students’ knowledge at all,” said junior Tiffanie Leaks, a broadcasting, telecommunications and mass media major. “We may not even know what they decide to do until it’s already been done.”

Brandon Lausch and Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at TempleNews@GMail.com.

Staff Writer Christopher Wink contributed to this article, which contains information from the Allentown Morning Call.

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