This development is causing an unsettling chilling effect in academia, mostly because professors are finding that administration officials are not backing them up when a student voices objections to material that “offends” students. (AP):

Traditionally, clashes over academic freedom have pitted politicians or administrators against instructors who wanted to express their opinions and teach as they saw fit. But increasingly, it is students who are invoking academic freedom, claiming biased professors are violating their right to a classroom free from indoctrination.

For example, at the University of North Carolina, three incoming freshmen sued over a reading assignment they said offended their Christian beliefs.

In Colorado and Indiana, a national conservative group publicized student allegations of left-wing bias by professors. Faculty received hate mail and were pictured in mock “wanted” posters; at least one college said teacher received a death threat.

And at Columbia University in New York, a documentary film alleging that teachers intimidate students who support Israel drew the attention of administrators.

The three episodes differ in important ways, but all touch on an issue of growing prominence on college campuses.

In many ways, the trend echoes past campus conflicts — but turns them around. Once, it was liberal campus activists who cited the importance of “diversity” in pressing their agendas for curriculum change. Now, conservatives have adopted much of the same language in calling for a greater openness to their viewpoints.

…To many professors, there’s a new and deeply troubling aspect to this latest chapter in the debate over academic freedom: students trying to dictate what they don’t want to be taught.

“Even the most contentious or disaffected of students in the ’60s or early ’70s never really pressed this kind of issue,” said Robert O’Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and now director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

Those behind the trend call it an antidote to the overwhelming liberal dominance of university faculties. But many educators, while agreeing students should never feel bullied, worry that they just want to avoid exposure to ideas that challenge their core beliefs — an essential part of education.

Some also fear teachers will shy away from sensitive topics, or fend off criticism by “balancing” their syllabuses with opposing viewpoints, even if they represent inferior scholarship.

Leading the movement is the group Students for Academic Freedom, with chapters on 135 campuses and close ties to David Horowitz, a one-time liberal campus activist turned conservative commentator. The group posts student complaints on its Web site about alleged episodes of grading bias and unbalanced, anti-American propaganda by professors — often in classes, such as literature, in which it’s off-topic.

Instructors “need to make students aware of the spectrum of scholarly opinion,” Horowitz said. “You can’t get a good education if you’re only getting half the story.”

Conservatives claim they are discouraged from expressing their views in class, and are even blackballed from graduate school slots and jobs.

I feel like (faculty) are so disconnected from students that they do these things and they can just get away with them,” said Kris Wampler, who recently publicly identified himself as one of the students who sued the University of North Carolina. Now a junior, he objected when all incoming students were assigned to read a book about the Quran before they got to campus.

“A lot of students feel like they’re being discriminated against,” he said.

So far, his and other efforts are having mixed results. At UNC, the students lost their legal case, but the university no longer uses the word “required” in describing the reading program for incoming students (the plaintiffs’ main objection).

I think the debate is interesting, given the tables are now being turned in some respect, but what is disturbing is that students shouldn’t be dictating what they can and cannot read. Presenting “a balanced picture” is a highly subjective goal. I don’t know how that can be determined. If they are worried about the purity of their religious beliefs, they are welcome over at Bob Jones U — they won’t be challenged there.

This one hits home for my brother, a professor in DE and a former student at UNC. His girlfriend, also a professor, actually recounted a similar story about a student objecting to reading The Bell Jar because it had a passage that offended her. The student complained to the administration, and the professor was forced to back down and offer her alternative reading material or to “mark off” with post-its any passages that the student might be offended by. This makes no sense.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding