Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Operation Academic Freedom - part 1: probing the defences

I was forwarded an e-mail yesterday, it is from a high level university administrator, and has cascaded through several layers to me. It is not marked confidential and has been circulated widely among the university community.

The attachment is a letter from PA State Represenative Tom Stevenson, 42nd district. It demands a number of pieces of information in anticipation of hearings to be held later this year on Academic Freedom.

"What this select committee requests from you in order to get this inquiry initiated are several things:

  • a copy of your institution's statement of principles regarding student academic freedom

  • a copy of your institution's policy (or policies) describing the resolution of complaints by student's regarding violations of academic freedom

  • a copy of your institution's procedure for dealing with complaints, including a step-by-step description of the office or person handling the complaint, the make-up of the board that decides the validity of the complaint, the deadline for filing and the necessary content of a document of complaint.

  • data documenting the number of students in the past five years who have filed complaints related in any way to academic freedom, the means of determining the validity of complaints and the outcome of these complaints.

  • any action taken by the institution to correct the problem(s) that created the complaints.

The text of the letter, cleverly, states that the committee has knowledge of at least one incident - but they don't say which incident or which institution, so they're clearly setting a "cover-up" trap.

Oh, and they want all this by next week. Departments/faculty are directed to respond by friday. This week.

Interestingly, there were rumours a few years ago that a student organization was trying to "set-up" astronomy faculty in gen ed classes by asking leading questions on age of the Earth, Big Bang cosmology and personal religious beliefs. I know in one of my classes someone did persistently, and politely, ask:
the answers were: "4.5 Gyrs", "best bet cosmology" and "not pertinent".
To the best of my knowledge no one complained - the complaints were all about the "math" content and difficulty.

I do confess the "math" is both a matter of ideology and philosophy for me; and it is done knowing that some students feel threatened by algebraic equations and may receive low grades for failing to correctly identify the correct answers, as determined by me. I am a bit of an absolutist on this. It is a matter of professional responsibility.

Anyway, this answers one question - the PA Senate "Select Committee" is not going through the motions, they're going to find someone to make an example of, and I fear I know some of their target selection.

I would caution my colleagues who are spoiling for a fight - this must be resisted, but testifying to the committee is a trap. Representatives get real prickly in these hearings, any "lecturing" will be poorly received.

I expect the Universities to lawyer up; I also expect the administration to fight for the faculty on this one. Or else...

PS: all the information on policies that they want is on as found by 5 minute browsing through the PSU student info web pages. Don't these guys have staffers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a disaster for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvanis. How can any reputable corporation that relies on R&D want to move here if witch hunts like this are going on? The wingnuts who passed this law ought to have their heads examined. Oh, notice I said nothing about academic freedon? That argument won't fly with these people, since passage of the law proves they want to end it. But economic realaties might just persuade them. Thank God I teach at a private CATHOLIC university which honors academic freedon...and has a damn good astronomy/astrophysics department.


5:10 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

Yes, it is.
Private universities are looking real good right now, as are universities in States whose legislatures retain some sanity (someone tell me there still are some, please).

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a lot bigger than it looks. To find out why, study the history of the Dies Committee and the House Un-American Activities Committee. This whole situation should be regarded as a serious 'heads-up' by the scientific community.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

Yeah, it is potentially very insidious.
I expect one some Freedom Bills and Select Committees have got going, the push for a "loyalty oath" will be renewed.
Interesting question will be whether anyone will be foolish enough to make it to the President.

Interesting times.

10:24 AM  

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