A breath of fresh air – or the first step down a slippery slope?
“Academic freedom” has been a growing buzzword in recent years for conservatives paying attention to the goings-on at America’s college campuses. The leftist tendencies inherent in academia are, of course, not a new development, though they have been better-documented of late by conservative writers, such as UNC-Wilmington professor Mike Adams, and activists, like David Horowitz.
Case after case of liberal activism and indoctrination has been publicized by conservative individuals, and by organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). As a result, acts which in the past might have gone unnoticed and unquestioned – such as a Northern Kentucky professor’s demolishing of an anti-abortion display, or the University of Georgia’s disqualification of a Christian fraternity from student-organization privileges due to its requirement that its members be Christian – have been both exposed and corrected through quick, vigilant action on the part of those who were willing to stand up for actual equal treatment of college students, regardless of political affiliation or religious beliefs.
However, despite the watchfulness of those on the outside, America’s universities maintain their seemingly irreversible liberal bent. Part of this is because of a natural imbalance in the ideology of those employed there; another part is that one rarely seems able to find a professor they can peg as "conservative," due to the fact that those who lean right - bless their souls - do their job correctly, and rarely reveal their personal political inclinations in the classroom.
Campus conservatives have long worked responsibly and within legal boundaries to express their views and to fight for a more open academic environment. Some conservative activists, though, have made a pastime of purposely bending and breaking rules for the “greater good” of exposing perceived liberal bias in the enforcement of those rules. Unfortunately, the actions of the latter have had the doubly regrettable result not only of reflecting poorly on the majority who fit the former profile, but also of quite possibly setting back the movement for conservative equality on campus by a significant margin due to their brash, distasteful tactics which serve both to align the administration against them and to dissuade their fellow campus conservatives from speaking out when they in turn are wronged unjustly, lest they be painted with the same brush.
The current intellectual state of our college campuses is clear. So, what is it that needs to be done? Can conservative students still survive in academia? Or has the liberal bias on campus – in the form of speech codes, student conduct guidelines, and professorial indoctrination – gotten so out of hand that government needs to intervene?
There have been recent moves to involve the State in issues of academia, but they have largely taken place in the courts. The threat of a lawsuit was the impetus in overcoming the University of Georgia’s aforementioned opposition to the registration of a Christian fraternity; likewise, two students at Georgia Tech scored a dubious success last year when the suit they filed against their Institute resulted in the scrapping of campus speech codes – a victory, due the imbalance in plaintiff expectation and reality, which was as ironic as it was dubious, as their success directly resulted in the abuse the plaintiffs received during their legal crusade being made wholly and permanently permissible.
Now, in Georgia, the legislative branch appears poised to get in on the act, as well. The sponsors of controversial House Bill (HB) 154 (or the “Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education Act”), is currently working its way through the state’s General Assembly, ostensibly hope to help shield students from unwelcome political indoctrination in the classroom, to help remove the yoke of political correctness from inter-student discourse and expression, and to help prevent teachers from being denied tenure (or worse, fired) because of their political leanings – in other words, they hope to help break the liberal grip on academia.
On the surface, these seem like admirable enough goals. What measures, though, would actually be put into place should HB 154 pass – and would the passage of this legislation serve as an end in itself, or would it only encourage government to further legislate the thoughts and actions of those on this nation’s college campuses? For, regardless of whether or not this bill would actually provide a temporary respite for conservatives students and faculty who have long had to struggle to get by in an environment which is predisposed toward modern liberalism, there is the worrisome prospect that HB 154 is simply the first step in a process to legislate the actions and, more importantly, the thoughts of those who inhabit America’s “marketplaces of ideas.”
In all fairness, the Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education Act does not regulate either thought or action on the part of students or faculty in Georgia’s colleges. What it does do is two things. First, it proposes a definition of the term “intellectual diversity” (the “foundation of a learning environment that exposes students to a variety of political, ideological, and other perspectives”), and suggests ways of demonstrating a commitment to that diversity. These suggestions range from “conducting a study to assess the current state of intellectual diversity on…campus,” to “including intellectual diversity issues in student course evaluations,” to “creating an institutional ombudsman on intellectual diversity.” The bill contains twelve such suggestions in all. Second, HB 154 directs the state’s Board of Regents to “require each institution under its control to report annually to the [Georgia] General Assembly, detailing the steps that the institution is taking to ensure intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas.”
This is the only legal directive in this bill – the requirement for annual submission of a report to the state legislature on the steps being taken to ensure intellectual diversity on campus and in the classroom. However, it is not this bill, per se, that should worry conservatives, as the ideals sought by this legislation are positive. Rather, it is the potential for further legislation which is a cause for concern - legislation which could result in further legal regulation of ideology and expression.
Speech codes, political correctness, glorification of superficial racial diversity, and uneven enforcement of regulations have all contributed to the destruction of the image (as utopian as it may have been) of the American university as a place where young people can be exposed to truly diverse ideas and viewpoints. However, within the attempt to correct this situation through legislation lies the potential for the scales not only to be balanced, but to be tipped in the opposite direction – or in any direction future lawmakers (and judges) may decide. The legislation of thought, whether it be the regulation of speech or the enforcement of the availability of diverse of viewpoints, leads down the same slippery slope, regardless of intent – and, for the rational conservative, the final destination is not a desirable one, regardless of the “greater good” which may have been served in getting there.
Jeff Emanuel, a Special Operations military veteran, is a Leadership fellow with the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia, where he also studies Classics. In addition, he is a contributing editor for conservative web log Red State, and is a columnist for the Athens, GA Banner-Herald newspaper.