Daniel H. McElwee
New Res 137
April 2, 2005
To the Editor:
I am writing this letter in response to Matt Richman’s egregiously misleading op-ed, “‘Academic Freedom’ Stifles Free Exchange of Ideas.” I respect Richman’s right to voice his concerns about the Academic Freedom movement – but I would suggest that if he does so again in the future, he should incorporate more facts and less fiction into his argument so that those he is criticizing and those who read his piece may begin to take his form of commentary seriously.
For starters, I would like to address Richman’s assertion that SAF uses “shoddily researched surveys” to meet the aims of our alleged neo-conservative agenda. While the word “shoddily” is a wonderful word to throw around when one is trying to baselessly smear an organization, it is empty rhetoric that hardly conveys the truth about SAF’s research methods. US News and World Report had an article in its March 7, 2005 issue entitled, “Professors and Politics” by Justin Evans. The article reported that “49 percent of students at the top 50 schools said professors frequently comment on politics in class. More that 1 in 5 complained about instructors who create a classroom environment hostile to certain political views,” and that in a survey of 1,000 college professors, “Democrats outnumbered their Republican counterparts at least 8 to 1 in the humanities and social sciences” (p. 34). So maybe if SAF’S research is not acceptable for Richman, US News and World Report’s research will be.
Secondly, on the issue of an Academic Bill of Rights, I found Richman’s statements personally offensive. As SAF’s Director of Research and Policy, I am currently drafting an Academic Bill of Rights that SAF is hoping will be adopted by the College. I can personally attest that the Bill will guarantee the rights of all students and professors to hold whatever views they desire without the fear of reprisals from anyone within the institution.
SAF does not believe that political affiliation is “a barometer for professional suitability.” We believe that professors have the right to hold and express whatever political belief they find to be acceptable. But they do not have the right to force personal agendas upon their students and they certainly do not have the right to create a hostile learning environment for any student. It is na?ve to say that a hostile learning environment does not exist when 1 in 5 students is professing that it does. If any other minority on campus was complaining about a hostile “liberal learning environment,” the community would be up in arms, as it should be. But when an intellectual minority complains, they find nothing but criticism and ostracism; such an environment is not “liberal learning,” but intellectual fascism
A third point that I would like to touch upon is the presumption that SAF is seeking to create “an antiseptic atmosphere” for learning. SAF strives to promote diversity within the liberal learning community with the acceptance of all views – a “bland” learning environment is a result of one perspective being forced upon students continually, without an open discourse including a broad range of ideas.
I think Richman’s incorporation of Russell Jacoby’s quote about conservatives controlling many aspects of government, shows Richman’s true reason for writing his expose on SAF. He is clearly disillusioned that conservatives control many areas of public life, and as a result feels that liberals are entitled to do as they please in the realm of higher education. Bitterness does not permit entitlement, in either government or education. I would like to imagine that we are all better than to believe in that, especially as intellectuals at an institution of higher learning.
SAF is concerned that the beliefs many hold dear are being made a mockery of by many faculty members at the College. And while not all faculty members are guilty, we believe that there are those who abuse their position. SAF respects and values the various views of faculty at the College, but we are asking that the faculty becomes more tolerant of alternative views.
My final comment responds to Richman’s question, “Where is my academic freedom to demand Marxist instruction from a heterodox capitalist economist?” My response is that it may not exist, yet. Bust SAF believes that it should exist, and is fighting to ensure that it will in the future. If Richman is of the conviction that he is being unfairly treated by a faculty member, I encourage him to come to one of our public meetings and discuss it with SAF. I will personally make sure that SAF will take his claim seriously and look into the matter. SAF believes all students have the right to a full education and will fight to make certain that right is guaranteed.
The bottom line is that SAF is not out to get anyone. The organization was founded at the College to ensure that the “liberal learning environment” of TCNJ is just that – a rich, diverse community that values the beliefs of all its students and is committed to open intellectualism.