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I wasn't using my academic rights, anyway

This past summer, the battle over political bias in higher education sneaked closer to home when the Pennsylvania state legislature voted to investigate the matter. But we wake up this week to find that the issue is looming closer than ever.

Last Friday, Long Pham, the chair of the Academic Advisory Committee of Student Senate, formally proposed to Vice Provost for Education Indira Nair that the University add a new paragraph to its policy on students? rights. The language of the proposal is derived from conservative activist David Horowitz?s so-called ?Academic Bill of Rights,? which the American Association of University Professors has called ?improper and dangerous.?

Secondly, Pham told Student Senate on Thursday that his committee was also planning to ?address professional conduct on the part of professors.?

Together, the Academic Affairs Committee?s two-step initiative ? the proposed amendment to University policy and an eventual movement to address professors? conduct ? has the potential to significantly undermine the academic freedom of our professors and diminish the integrity of our education.

Pham?s proposed addition to the University?s policy on students? rights is based on a principle that is of the utmost importance to all students: we should all, without question, have protection against prejudiced or arbitrary evaluation.

But, in fact, we already have that protection. Present University policy states: ?It is imperative that grading be a fair, accurate and honest measure of a student?s work,? and the policy allows students to appeal grading to their professor, department head, and College Council, college-specific academic decision-making body.

If the Academic Affairs Committee were concerned about bias in grading, a more effective approach would be a campaign to make students aware of their existing rights and remedies. Adding another policy to the handbook, which they have admitted nobody reads, would be fruitless.

The second portion of what the Academic Affairs Committee proposes to do is much more ominous. The committee members were vague about how they plan to ?address professional conduct on the part of professors,? but they cautioned, ?We just want to be very careful of stepping on faculty?s toes with certain things because they might get touchy and think that we?re restricting their ability to run classes like they want to.?

If the committee is afraid that professors might think they are losing control of their classes, something is awry.

The integrity of our educational environment rests on mutual respect and trust between the faculty and the students. We entrust our faculty with the responsibility of using their experience and education to set the standards of scholarship and teaching.

If a student feels that a professor conducts him- or herself in an unprofessional or prejudiced manner, that student needs to speak up. Directly or with the help of an advisor or friend, that student should address the professor, department head, or College Council. That sort of direct, honest communication is the way to resolve any problem of this nature, not by jeopardizing academic freedom by placing policy-based mandates on professors.

At no time should these issues involve a potentially political University administration ? or worse yet, as the author of the ?Academic Bill of Rights? would have it, the courts.

Pham asserts that he wants to divorce his initiative from the broader political controversy, but, like it or not, this issue comes with baggage.

In the end, addressing the issue within the University is infinitely superior to partisan legislative bodies setting the rules for us, but the Academic Affairs Committee?s tactics still have far more potential for harm than for good. The Committee should rethink its approach.