Campus Scenes

Bad Medicine

Do we need laws to end viewpoint discrimination in our colleges?

By 5.17.07

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Few colleges and universities seem able to operate without at least one Vice President for Diversity and Equity whose responsibility is to ensure diversification in every facet of college life save opinions. Not only are conservative and Christian religious beliefs exempted, they are often targets of disdain in the intellectual equivalent of open season. This began to change when social work major Emily Brooker sued Missouri State University after she was pressed before an ethics committee accused of violating "diversity standards."

Her offense: Ms. Brooker had declined to participate in a classroom writing assignment asking legislators to support the right of gay couples to be foster parents. During her hearing before the ethics panel Ms. Brooker was asked: "Do you think gays and lesbians are sinners? Do you think I am a sinner?"

Missouri State University is located in Springfield, Missouri, the proverbial buckle of the Bible Belt. As headquarters of the Assemblies of God Church, one would expect the local campus to be overwhelmingly pro-Christian. But even here there is disdain for evangelical beliefs.

Indeed, the feeling is widespread. A San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research survey found that 53 percent of its sample of 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have "unfavorable" feelings toward evangelical Christians. The institute had been gauging for anti-Semitic attitudes among faculty; instead, it found pro-Jewish sentiment and anti-evangelical attitudes. Mormons also came in for negative sentiments. And this number reflects only the professors willing to reveal their prejudice to pollsters -- professors who routinely denounce stereotyping, prejudice and hypocrisy -- so presumably the real figure could be much higher. The institute's director and chief pollster Gary A. Tobin told the Washington Post, "There is no question this is revealing bias and prejudice."

Much to the university's chagrin, Tobin went on to add: "If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews or Latinos or African Americans, there would be an outcry. No one would attempt to justify or explain those feelings. No one would say, 'The reason they feel this way is because they don't like the politics of blacks or the politics of Jews.' That would be unthinkable."

An independent report, undertaken as part of the settlement of Brooker's lawsuit, found many social work majors fearful of expressing views that differed from their professors, especially on spiritual and religious matters. In fact "bullying" was used by both students and faculty to characterize specific faculty. It appears that faculty have no history of intellectual discussion/debate. Rather, differing opinions are taken personally and often result in inappropriate discourse.

Investigators concluded their report with a recommendation to temporarily shut down the School of Social Work, rid the school of "toxic faculty" and hire new staff.

But don't expect the professoriate to accept the report's conclusion. Instead, many academics justified the evidence of bias as a form of "political and cultural resistance," which is what southern rednecks would have called lynching had they gone in for euphemism.

THIS PERSISTENT BIAS HAS led to a campaign organized by conservative activist David Horowitz to promote intellectual diversity on campuses. The Missouri House is the first body to pass such legislation. Missouri's "Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act" mandates requirements for balance in the curriculum and respect for intellectual diversity, in hiring, and in public speeches on the campus -- coupled with reporting requirements. Momentum is building. An Arizona Senate Bill would forbid school district employees from advocating "one side of a social, political, or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy," or face a fine of up to $500. Some academics -- particularly science faculty -- worry that if they do not give equal time to creationism or intelligent design, they could face disciplinary action or worse.

Certainly one is tempted to say, what comes around goes around. If academics hadn't been so blatantly biased against Christians in the first place the issue never would have arisen. And if universities had allowed a multiplicity of viewpoints -- left and right -- to battle it out in the marketplace of ideas, the faculty at MSU School of Social Work would still have their cushy teaching posts. Apparently religious intolerance cometh before a fall.

Most of us, I suspect, have been there before. In college, I was sometimes reluctant to express my true opinions -- libertarian or conservative -- for fear of offending my ultraliberal professor who might then lower his or her opinion of me as well as my grade. Had there been conservative professors, I'm sure my liberal classmates would have felt the same, but of course there weren't any. When I would ask my right-wing elders why there were no conservative professors, inevitably I would be told, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach," or words to that effect. According to Horowitz, the real reason is far more sinister: liberal academics have conspired to keep conservatives and conservative voices out of the academy through discriminatory hiring practices.

Horowitz et al. are right to draw attention to the one-party system present on many of our campuses, but there is reason for optimism. Indeed, as universities and colleges increasingly operate like bottom-line oriented big businesses and less like elite pedagogic institutions with a mandate to develop the best young minds (in my opinion a far more serious problem confronting colleges) free market policies will inevitably come into play and a lot of liberal professors will find themselves back in the homeless shelters where they belong. I am all for the establishment taking back the universities, but don't let's do it by creating more laws and giving more power and money to college administrators and bureaucrats. That solution will only create more problems.

Christopher Orlet writes the Existential Journalist blog.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.