A group of Republican UCLA alumni, determined to expose left-wing extremism at the university, is offering students up to $100 per class for documented evidence of bias in the classroom (such as notes or taped recordings). In response to this tactic, two of the group’s board members, including my friend Stephan Thernstrom, the Harvard historian, have resigned from the group’s board. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Thernstrom said he joined the alumni group’s more than 20-member advisory board last year because he believed it “had a legitimate objective of combating the extraordinary politicization of the faculty on elite campuses today.”
Still, Thernstrom said, “I felt it was extremely unwise, one, to put out a list of targets of investigation and to agree to pay students to provide information about what was going on in the classroom of those students. That just seems to me way too intrusive. It seems to me a kind of vigilantism that I very much object to.”
Generally speaking, people do not like paid snitches. But even aside from the questionable tactic of paying students for dirt on professors, there’s also the issue of what the group regards as radical.
I don’t have a problem with identifying and criticizing those who use their lectern as an opportunity to berate, belittle, or otherwise abuse students. I don’t really have a problem with accountability and having outside groups look into whether or not professors are abusing their positions. But what I do fear are the kinds of kids who are going to keep Andrew Jones and his group in business. They are the kid who sat in every class with you and loudly and annoyingly recited something he heard on Rush Limbaugh, thinking this showed the professor was a left-wing crank. This is, I am betting, the kid who screamed bias because the teacher seemed to spend more time looking to the left side of the class than the right, or the kid who saw bias because the professor refused to call 1992-2000 the “Dark Years.”
I saw Adam Jones, the head of the group, on “Hannity & Colmes” last night, and I can tell John Cole that he would win his bet. (You can watch a clip here.) When asked for specific instances of professorial misconduct, Jones talked about how Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the ACLU (which, to the Hannitized, is of course an automatic marker for Evil with a Capital E — kind of like mentioning Dracula) was asked to teach a class at the university and taught it in a “one-sided” manner, and his complaint about it was not treated very seriously.
More about the group’s grievances can be found in this informative post by David Schraub at The Debate Link. Most of these grievances seem to focus not on actual classroom bias or mistreatment of students, but on faculty members’ political views (such as opposition to the war in Iraq or support for affirmative action) and off-campus activities. And there’s some downright bizarre stuff, too. One professor is denounced for being too critical of the Japanese-American internment:
Kang’s strange preoccupation with this historical footnote is in defiance of all reasonable history. Kang was born in South Korea, a country that (in its original undivided form) suffered for 50 years under a harsh imperial Japanese occupation. Moreover, South Korea was a country saved from Communist despotry by the United States not less than a decade after our brief use of Japanese internment camps.
As Schraub notes:
Of course, calling the Japanese internment a “historical footnote” might be the most radical thing I’ve read today. But more importantly, the implication that a “good” Korean should just laugh at American injustice toward other Americans (of Japanese descent) is both morally appalling, and gives lie to their self-proclaimed support for treating individuals as individuals, and not markers for their specific ethnic group.
John Cole writes:
[W]hile I have no problem with an honest acounting of what professors are doing, and I have no doubt that there are, by any standard, some radicals at UCLA, I am afraid a bunch of little David Horowitz’s are not the folks I want rooting them out.
Meanwhile, in case you’ve missed the news, “big” David Horowitz has a bit of egg on his face. Last week, a Pennsylvania legislative committee was holding hearings on the Academic Bill of Rights, which Horowitz has been pushing as a means to rectify political bias and indoctrination in academia. (While a lot of the bill consists of unobjectionable declarations of the principles of openness and not punishing students for dissenting viewpoints, it also contains provisions that could penalize professors for expressing their political views in class or failing to include enough diverse viewpoints — which is open to a lot of potentially troubling interpretations.) According to InsideHigherEd:
[A]s hearings ended in Philadelphia Tuesday, critics of the Academic Bill of Rights were saying that they had scored key points. David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has led the push for the hearings in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, admitted that he had no evidence to back up two of the stories he has told multiple times to back up his charges that political bias is rampant in higher education.
In an interview after the hearing, Horowitz said that his acknowledgements were inconsequential, and he complained about “nit picking” by his critics. But while Horowitz was declaring the hearings “a great victory” for his cause, he lost some powerful stories. For example, Horowitz has said several times that a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University used a class session just before the 2004 election to show the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, but he acknowledged Tuesday that he didn’t have any proof that this took place.
In a phone interview, Horowitz said that he had heard about the alleged incident from a legislative staffer and that there was no evidence to back up the claim. He added, however, that “everybody who is familiar with universities knows that there is a widespread practice of professors venting about foreign policy even when their classes aren’t about foreign policy” and that the lack of evidence on Penn State doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.
“These are nit picking, irrelevant attacks,” he said.
Others think that it’s quite relevant that Horowitz couldn’t back up the example, especially since there have been previous incidents in which his claims about professors have been debunked.
The other example Horowitz was forced to back down on Tuesday is from the opposite end of the political spectrum. He has several times cited the example of a student in California who supports abortion rights and who said that he was punished with a low grade by a professor who opposed abortion. Asked about this example, Horowitz said that he had no evidence to back up the student’s claim.
In the interview, he said that he didn’t have the resources to look into all the complaints that he publicizes. “I can’t investigate every story,” he said.
Horowitz noted that when he publicizes such stories, he does not print the names of the professors involved, and that he has stated many times that a professor involved in such an incident would be welcome to write a rebuttal that he would post on his Web site. “I have protected professors. I have not posted their names and pilloried them. My Web site is open to them,” he said.
Even if these examples aren’t correct, he said, they represent the reality of academic life.
I love the “fake but accurate defense,” amusingly reminiscent of some classic arguments I recall hearing on the left: it doesn’t matter whether Tawana Brawley was actually raped or not, because, you know, everybody knows that young black women get raped and abused by racist white cops.
(By the way, see the post by Clifton Snider in the comments section on the article for an example of Horowitz, apparently, falsely targeting a professor — by name — as a political bully in the classroom.)
Is it a problem that academia tilts so heavily to the left? Yes, it is. Is left-wing political correctness and speech suppression on campuses a problem? Yes, it is. (And it’s too bad that when the American Historical Association voted recently to condemn the “Academic Bill of Rights” as an infringement on academic freedom, it declined a proposal to simultaneously condemn campus speech codes.)
But David Horowitz is clearly not part of the solution. Rather, he is a discredit to his cause.
For an example of how how to really fight for academic freedom, look at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), co-founded by University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and Boston civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate. FIRE is scupulously and genuinely non-partisan, defending professors and students who are penalized for expressing any unpopular views, left or right, or prevented from freely expressing such views on campus. And it is equally scrupulous in its fact-checking. Oh, and it doesn’t pay anyone to snitch, either.