There are lots of fringe publications, right and left, that stay in business by tossing out stories to their readers that are designed to keep them in a lather, whether or not there is any reason to be. The Independent's March 31 pieces "Academia Under Siege," "Mainstream Manipulation," and Richard Hart's ill-informed attack on the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy fall into that disreputable category.
First, the notion that there is some conspiracy to "intimidate left-leaning professors and shut down the marketplace of ideas" is nonsense. What groups like the Pope Center complain about is the unnecessary politicization of courses and a professorial stance that says to students, "This is what you must believe." While some discussion of political questions is healthy and unavoidable in some courses, we object to professors turning their classes largely into soapboxes for their proselytizing. And we hold that view on principle. It would be every bit as unacceptable, for instance, for a professor to harangue students on the perceived necessity of the Iraq war as to harangue them on its perceived folly.
We agree with the American Association of University Professors' 1915 statement on the misuse of professorial authority. That is not a threat to academic freedom.
More disturbing was Hart's statement that the Pope Center is part of an attack on "the social advances this nation has made" and that it promotes the Bush Administration's social agenda. He gives no evidence supporting that smear--because there isn't any. The mission of the Pope Center is to promote excellence in higher education. We don't advocate the Bush Administration's social agenda, having no position on issues irrelevant to quality higher education.
Evidently, Hart assumes that because we think Prof. Elyse Crystall's handling of the classroom "incident" was poor, we must be neo-fascists. I used to teach logic. That's called a non sequitur.
Cat Warren continues in this conspiratorial vein, arguing that the Pope Center and other "ultra-conservative" groups "helped write the script" for the Crystall controversy. The assumption is clear and risible: Students neither happen upon nor act upon conservative beliefs on their own; they must have been manipulated by evil outsiders.
Self-deception is the most pathetic of all deceits.
It's not the only deceit to be found in your issue, however; Barbara Solow's article was replete with factual inaccuracies. Among those involving the Pope Center:
Despite expending a great deal of time interviewing me and Jon Sanders, Solow did not quote either to address the "critics [who] say [our] real aim is to intimidate left-leaning professors and shut down the marketplace of ideas that's at the heart of the university's mission." We told her that the Pope Center worked to hold the university to its own standards of honoring intellectual diversity and academic freedom, we don't favor conservative quotas, and furthermore that we think an Academic Bill of Rights is unnecessary because it would involve federal monitoring of universities (regarding this latter position, Solow wrote only that "The Pope Center hasn't signed on to the Academic Bill of Rights" with no further explanation). None of our comments made the story because none fit the conspiracy angle Solow peddled.
Also, in her list of other groups compiling "anecdotes" complaining of abuse of academic freedom at universities, Solow neglected to mention the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which Sanders told her about along with NoIndoctrination.org. FIRE works on behalf of liberals as well as conservatives.
Apparently Solow neglected to mention the objective truth about FIRE and about our position regarding academic speech and the importance of an actual marketplace of ideas on campus because neither fit her preconception of a coordinated conspiracy attacking the university.
George C. Leef, J.D.
John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
Editor's Note: In order to allow for a fuller response from Pope Center director George Leef, we waived the lenght limit of 300 words.
Joey Stansbury, the Pope Center's outreach director in Chapel Hill, told reporter Barbara Solow that Laura Thomas was an unpaid intern.
Michael McKnight, founder of The Committee for a Better Carolina, said the Pope Center paid for an ad taken out by The Committee for a Better Carolina concerning the summer reading program.
Stansbury told Solow the Pope Center had reserved the domain name www.campusbias.org. Internet registration records show the domain is registered to Stansbury.
The article contains a link to NoIndoctrination.org.
Far to go
As a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnae and a human being, I am embarrassed and disgusted by the events that have ensued since that fateful e-mail was first sent by a professor trying to embrace her course and her students and to protect her classroom from hatred and fear ("Academia Under Siege," March 31). While free speech is a right afforded to all who make this country their own, when that speech (and by this I mean that of the student referring to himself as a conservative Christian) includes bigotry, hatred, sexism, gender bias or defamation of sexual orientation it has no place in an institute of higher learning or in society as a whole. When that speech creates fear in another based on sexual orientation it has no place in the classroom or anywhere else. After reading the e-mails made public through the media (of which many are hate mail; vicious and threatening) sent to the professor in response to her initial e-mail, I sadly realized just how far humanity has to go, and that universities are the very vehicles of hope and change to take us there. It's a massive undertaking but a necessary and vital one. When the pedestals of higher learning are threatened, we have truly lost our freedom.
Allison W. Kinnarney
Cat Warren ends her analysis of the conservative conspiracy against UNC by asking, "could we cut back on the hate mail?" As I see it, this whole mess started with hate mail... from the teacher! Elyse Crystall asked a question of a student, got an answer she did not like, and rather than challenge the student in a fashion that would not engender "fear of retribution," as UNC's mission statement demands, she instead used massed e-mails to smear the student's character and reputation. Crystall's methods were cowardly, unprofessional, and worthy of contempt from all intellectuals who truly seek open and honest debate.
Having so positively promoted "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office," can we now expect equal promotion for such titles as "How to Keep Blacks in their Place," or is this another example of how reverse racism is justified by "white privilege"?
Not to worry
Here is a quick response to those who think that academia in general, and UNC-Chapel Hill in particular, is a bastion of "liberal" bias and "progressive" political practice: look at the labor relations. I have been involved in unionization efforts at UNC-Chapel Hill with graduate teaching and research assistants as well as facilities service workers for several years. Let me ease the worried minds of any anti-labor "conservatives" reading this: this university (along with the state) is doing all that it can to block employees from having a working grievance system, a harassment-free workplace, quality benefits, and decent pay. At least on this front the "conservatives" have the university on their side. But they might want to keep their guard up, because we are making strides to change that everyday.
A teachable moment, instead
As a liberal student at Duke, I read Barbara Solow's "Academia Under Siege" with great interest. I count myself lucky to have several gay friends at Duke, and am pleased that most of them find Duke to be an open and accepting campus.
But what I like most about Duke's political atmosphere is its open and accepting attitude toward different opinions. If the students in Ms. Crystall's class were discussing "why straight men feel threatened by gay men," I wonder why Mr. Mertes' comments were met with such harsh derision. Clearly, he's a perfect example of just such a social phenomenon. Why didn't Ms. Crystall and her students ask Mertes why he feels the way he does? They might have found some of the answers they were looking for. If national opinion polls mean anything, Mertes' views are typical in this country. Wouldn't it have been useful to explore the attitudes behind them?
As for the "coordinated conservative campaign" against liberal bias, universities are, and have always been, institutions of predominantly liberal thought. Even conservative attack dogs (no matter how much the media "buys into it") won't change that. After all, it wasn't so long ago that views like Mertes' were the norm, and liberal students would have appreciated some outside support. It's unfortunate that a homosexual student in the class was hurt by Mertes' comments, but from the description in the article, it doesn't sound like he lacked any support from his classmates. For her part, Ms. Crystall certainly avoided the moral high ground when she condemned Mertes as a product of "white heterosexual Christian male" privilege. How hypocritical for a class learning about "cultural diversity!" It seems to me that Ms. Crystall took what should have been an opportunity for discussion, and turned it into anti-liberal ammunition.
Labels mean little
I find it curious that "Academia Under Siege" (March 31) went on for eight pages about a "campus culture war" between "liberal orthodoxy" and the "well-financed conservative machine" without ever addressing the pivotal issue: What do these terms mean? The short answer is "nothing," these terms are now seen as synonymous with whichever party one votes for. Long forgotten are the original definitions of liberal and conservative. These are now merely generic groups into which well-meaning citizens are emotionally polarized over a select set of gray-area straw man issues such as gun control and abortion. Case in point: gay marriage. I find myself supremely disinterested in the homosexuals' quest for equal tax breaks. And considering the state of world affairs, the amount of attention this issue garners is disturbing. As to the issue at hand, any professor that would criticize a student in a public forum for expressing his honest opinion ought to be fired posthaste. Who are these "liberals" that find censorship so appealing? Misguided attempts to abolish "hate" are perhaps even more asinine than a "war on terror."
In "Mainstream Manipulation" (March 31) information provided by Fox News incorrectly attributed a quote to Dean Bresciani, interim vice chancellor for student affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill. What Bresciani actually told Fox was the following: "People make mistakes, but that's also a learning opportunity in itself. I think that event, again, has been a very exciting educational opportunity for a lot of us to discuss not just with students but with faculty themselves."
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