News

CMU wary of "Academic Bill of Rights"

July 7 was a victory day in Pennsylvania for conservative activist and author David Horowitz. By a vote of 108-90, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives established a committee charged with investigating students' claims of political discrimination at public state universities.

The committee's establishment stems directly from Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights," which he promoted in several states. His "Bill of Rights" was designed, he stated in an article for NewsMax.com, to "defend 'intellectual diversity' and codify students' academic freedoms (while still supporting the academic freedom of professors)."

The bill makes several proposals, one of which is to outlaw faculty from using their courses "for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or anti-religious indoctrination." Faculty must present dissenting viewpoints to their course materials "where appropriate." The bill also mandates that sponsored speakers "observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism."

Many employed in education have said that Horowitz's phrasings are delibrately vague, and could set a dangerous precedent. Alfred L. Brophy, a professor of law at the University of Alabama, was quoted as saying: "His [Horowitz's] bill would keep universities busy respecting and presenting all viewpoints, leaving one to wonder when there could be a focus on the viewpoints that have deservedly gained adherents."

Horowitz has a history at Carnegie Mellon: Last November The Tartan chose not to run one of his ads due to potentially derogatory statements, instead issuing a statement by then-Executive Officer Mark Egerman. A debate between Horowitz and Egerman later aired live on WRCT. A similar Horowitz ad denouncing slavery reparations was printed in Brown University's Daily Herald in 2001, after which students removed 4000 copies from distribution points across campus and attempted to forceably enter the newspaper office for a remaining 100 copies.
Several national organizations have opposed the "Academic Bill of Rights," including the American Association of University Professors. In statements between December 2003 and July 2005, the AAUP officially condemned Horowitz's bill as a threat to academic freedom.

However, both Georgia and Colorado have now passed bills stemming from Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights" proposals, and many consider Pennsylvania's recent committee approval a similar step in that direction. Although Horowitz's original draft imposed its rules over both "public universities and to private universities that present themselves as bound by the canons of academic freedom," the adopted committee is only investigating the public sector.

Executive Director Michael Finch of Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture was contacted, but The Tartan was told he was unavailable for comment.
As for whether the bill will ever fully find its way into law in Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon Provost Mark Kamlet was doubtful. "From my perspective," Kamlet said, "that's good - it's a set of positions that sound completely innocuous... but the way it seeks to implement what it's trying to pursue could be very wrongheaded and dangerous."

Although Kamlet said his own opinions do not necessarily represent those of other University administration, he did not endorse the bill, saying, "It has not met with a very favorable reception at all by most of the responsible groups that have dealt with it [such as the AAUP]."

University President Jared Cohen said that he personally agreed with Kamlet, and that the bill was "a bad idea."

"The basic idea that the curriculum and what gets taught are decided by the faculty and not by any external forces is absolutely fundamental to universities," Cohen said. "And anything that can set principle or work against it is something that I am very concerned about. While this bill and the committee that creates it cannot directly control or affect curriculum or course content, it is certainly a step in that direction and the very existence of it could have a chilling effect on faculty and their institutions."