3/17/2005

Stifling academic freedom in Florida

This is good.
Editorial from the Daytona News-Journal:
It's almost a college ritual -- staring at a paper with a lower-than-expected grade and looking for an answer. It's not fair, the thought process runs. The professor didn't like me because I'm gay/ straight/ a woman/ a man/ a Christian/ a Jew/ an atheist/ conservative/ liberal/ white/ black/ Asian/ Hispanic. . .Usually, the complaints are just a way of ducking personal responsibility for below-par performance. Sometimes, however, they're justified. That's why Florida's public universities have established impartial third-party grievance processes to hear disputes over bias in the classroom. These procedures -- established at every state university -- seem to be working fine. Florida doesn't have an "academic freedom" problem. So why are lawmakers looking for a solution? For an answer, look north. Florida is one of a dozen states targeted by a Washington, D.C-based group waging an intimidation war against what it sees as an overwhelming liberal bias among the nation's university faculty. Students for Academic Freedom is pitifully short of evidence supporting the need for such legislation. But that hasn't stopped the group from pushing for new laws that give students a right to an "unbiased" education. That includes the right to be "graded wthout discrimination on the basis of their political and religious beliefs." It also includes a prohibition against "instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to the subject of study and serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose." It declares that "freedom of speech, freedon of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of conscience of students and student organizations will not be infringed upon." Finally, student fees (which usually support campus organizations) will be distributed on a "viewpoint neutral basis." Lofty stuff, and it sounds good. But the practical effect of the bill would be to chill professors and students from talking freely about issues -- including controversial ones -- for fear that someone might be offended. The bill includes a slight hedge against that chilling effect in its declaration that professors and instructors can't be hired, fired or disciplined for their political or religious beliefs. But that's not enough to merit passage. Students and professors already have protection against religious discrimination, and grievance procedures that protect them from arbitrary, unfair professors. What they don't need is legislation aimed at protecting them from hearing ideas that challenge, upset or even anger them. That silences professors asking them to think for themselves instead of spouting a party line. That fails to prepare them for the day when they'll leave academia and enter the "real" world, with all its opinions, conflicts and -- on occasion -- unfairness. There's no evidence that Florida students need this legislation, and plenty of reason to believe the state's public university system could suffer for it.

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