Conservatives target America’s colleges and universities

by on April 14th, 2005

Claiming a pervasive liberal bias in academia, conservative students at the University of North Carolina have sued professors, “wanted” posters have pilloried academics in Colorado and Indiana, red stars have been pasted on professors’ doors in California, and politicians have introduced versions of a so called “Academic Bill of Rights” in 14 state legislatures and in Congress.

A central figure in this nationwide effort is David Horowitz, once a radical activist on the left and now a vocal advocate on the right.

Horowitz has written several books including The Art of Political War, praised by President Bush’s key advisor Karl Rove as “the perfect guide to winning on the political battlefield.” Staking out his current battlefield, Horowitz recently warned Princeton and other universities that they should voluntarily adopt his bill of rights to “protect themselves from the storm that is coming.”

A model bill drafted by Horowitz and promoted by a group called Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) praises academic freedom and intellectual diversity as “indispensable to the American university,” and claims to abhor the idea of legislatures imposing any political, ideological or religious orthodoxy on professors, researchers or students. It then goes on to propose exactly that kind of control.

In addition to mandating that hiring and promotion decisions be made on the basis of “intellectual pluralism”—essentially a call for preferential hiring for conservatives– the bill also defines a variety of rights for students. These include the right not to be indoctrinated with a teacher’s opinions, not to be graded on the basis of political or religious beliefs, and the right to be given curricula, reading lists, and classes that provide dissenting sources and viewpoints and present “the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints” in each subject.

At first glance these student rights sound eminently fair and reasonable. However, if bills of this kind become law, they will have several predictable effects, which are already visible in the kinds of issues conservative students are complaining about and the comments and actions of the legislators pushing for these new laws.

–Students, or groups like SAF that claim to represent them, will gain the right to sue colleges and individual professors for perceived deviations from the legislated standards of ideological balance in teaching and grading, exposure to dissenting sources, evenhanded discussion of religious and political beliefs, etc.

–Judgment concerning what opinions, ideas, theories and sources represent “significant scholarly viewpoints” will be shifted from the people whose business it is to know–professors and their peers–to politicians and judges. Universities have long-standing hiring, review and feedback processes, from peers, administrators and students. The legislation would undermine that traditional self-government and give politicians the ultimate control of what and how professors teach.

–Trying to legislate “ideological balance” will have a chilling effect on genuine academic freedom, which requires the ability to pursue ideas, theories, and lines of research whether or not they happen to be popular or agree with legislators, judges or the current administration in Washington. It’s hard to imagine academic freedom under the threat of being disciplined or sued for failing to give equal time to every student’s or advocacy group’s favored opinion, source or belief.

–Over time this kind of legislation will accomplish exactly what its advocates claim they want to prevent–subjecting professors, and what they can freely study and teach, to a political litmus test.

There are many politically polarized subjects that it would be difficult or impossible to teach without failing that kind of litmus test, including economics, political science, history, climatology, ecology, and of course, evolution.

Many students now enter college firmly believing in the Biblical story of creation and convinced that it has a scientific basis—”intelligent design.” How long would it take for legally mandated protection of their beliefs to elbow evolution and genetics out of college classes—classes we rely on to train the next generation of scientists?

There is a sobering historical parallel. Darwinian evolution was as unpopular in the Soviet Union under Stalin as it is among the religious right in the U.S. today. The official belief was that people are infinitely malleable and could be reshaped by the state as it saw fit. Evolution implied the existence of deeply rooted human traits that might limit what the state could do. So, evolution had to go. Stalin put Trofim Lysenko—a plant breeder who felt that his views on evolution had not been given the respect they deserved–in charge of Soviet genetics. The result was that the Soviet Union missed out on the half century of scientific progress that started with the discovery of DNA’s double helix and culminated with the decoding of the human genome.

We need America’s college and university students to gain the knowledge and skills that will enable them to seek and discover new truths. That is not going to happen if they are taught only what conservative students and those who claim to speak for them want to hear, or what politicians think they should learn.


Robert Adler lives in Santa Rosa, California. He writes books and articles about science. For more commentary, go to

Robert Adler