Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Bill that's NOT needed

In the Missouri legislature, a bill claiming to protect intellectual diversity is being considered. House Bill 213, the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act, is designed to protect students from "view point discrimination." It requires public colleges in Missouri to file an annual report outlining what they are doing to protect intellectual diversity in the way of hiring and also outline grievance procedures should students believe they have been discriminated against because of their viewpoints. Emily Brooker was a social work student who sued the University of Missouri because she believed her grade was lowered because she refused to sign a letter against adoptions by gays.

Is such a bill really necessary? Probably not. After all, Emily Brooker did obtain an out of court settlement from the University, that is valued at $27,000 without this bill. Public universities and colleges already have protections for students who disagree with a professor.

The reporting requirements of the bill has some very interesting language. For instance colleges would be required to:

Encourage a balanced variety of campus-wide panels and speakers and annually publish the names of panelists and speakers;

Sounds good on the surface, but I suppose a university could get into trouble for bringing a pro-evolution speaker to campus without balancing that out with an intelligent design speaker.

Develop hiring, tenure, and promotion policies that protect individuals against viewpoint discrimination and track any reported grievances in that regard;

Are we talking intellectual quotas here? So every time my department hires a biologist we need to hire a creationist to represent diversity of viewpoints on evolution?

Develop methods for disseminating best practices to ensure that conflicts between personal beliefs and classroom assignments that may contradict such beliefs can be resolved in a manner that achieves educational objectives without requiring a student to act against his or her conscience;

Sounds good, but I suppose one of my students should be allowed to opt out of the evolution sections of my biology course because he or she doesn't believe in evolution. Or maybe I need to give equal time to non scientific ideas just because a significant proportion of the population in this country believes them...I don't think so.

Missouri isn't alone here. Similar bills have been proposed in other states including Kansas. These bills are inspired by David Horowitz, a well known conservative activist who has proposed an Academic Bill of Rights. The Students for Academic Freedom site which advocates this bill says in its masthead that "You can't get a good education if you are only told half the story." Now this sounds nice but what is the other half of the story? This sounds suspiciously like saying that all viewpoints are equal in academic discourse. They are not, as undemocratic as that might sound. For instance, many viewpoints and trains of thought, including some that are popular such as Young Earth Creationism just are not supported by critical analysis.

Yes, it is a good thing for students to question and develop their own view points-we cannot compel belief last time I checked, and any professor that would discriminate against students for their view points is not acting in an ethical manner, but a professor has a duty to present his or her honest understanding of a particular issue and expect students to understand the important theories and viewpoints taken in a particular discipline.

Colleges do have an ethical obligation to present diverse viewpoints and foster an atmosphere that encourages intelligent discourse and tolerance for diversity. But these sorts of bills seem to be micromanagement in the interest of "fair and balanced presentation." Horowitz claims his motivation for pushing the Academic Bill of Rights has nothing to do with being a conservative, but the whole thing reeks of the teach the controversy mantra being pushed by advocates of intelligent design.

Horowitz claims:

As the Academic Bill of Rights states, "Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions." That is common sense. Why not make it university policy?"

What is an unsettled question and in whose mind? Is the existence of evolution unsettled? Is the global warming unsettled? Whose job is it to determine this? The result of these bills may not be an increase of academic diversity, but a chilling of academic discourse because professors will be vulnerable to outside political pressure to teach or not teach a certain way or about a certain viewpoint, just as public school biology teachers often are afraid to teach evolution because of pressures from parents.

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