Web Exclusives: On the Campus

April 19, 2006:

Debate over academic freedom

By Adam Gottesfeld ’07

An undergraduate referendum on a statement described as a “student bill of rights” spurred both supporters and opponents to accuse each other of trying to restrict academic freedom. The proposal passed by a narrow margin, with 51.8 percent of students voting in favor.

The controversy began when the College Republicans on April 4 sent a statement to student publications and campus organizations of all political affiliations that contained a draft of a one-page student bill of rights and outlined its purpose.   Dubbed the “academic freedom initiative,” the bill was designed to promote intellectual diversity and pluralism on campus, College Republicans said.

“All the bill of rights would be if passed is a public declaration by the student body saying that we as Princeton students care about fostering an intellectual environment where differing views are tolerated and indeed embraced, and not the basis for ridicule or discrimination,” said William Scharf ’08, the College Republicans’ press secretary.

The initiative’s supporters said it would help stimulate classroom debate. But opponents warned that its passage would threaten free discussion of ideas.

Campus progressive leader Asheesh Siddique ’07 called the initiative a “bill of restrictions.” On April 5 he announced the creation of Free Exchange at Princeton, a coalition of students opposed to the student bill of rights.

“Free Exchange at Princeton believes the free exchange of ideas at Princeton University is central to the learning process,” Siddique said. “The proposed ‘student bill of rights’ attempts to impose an ideological agenda onto Princeton’s classrooms and suppress a real exchange of ideas. The College Republicans’ goal is nothing short of the destruction of the uniqueness of a Princeton education.”  

The bill of rights contains five articles that call for the removal of all political, ideological, or religious bias from grading, classroom discussions, the selection of faculty, and the allocation of university funds.

The initiative would not restrict professors’ abilities to express their own beliefs in the classroom, said Alex Maugeri ’07, president of the College Republicans. Rather, faculty members are encouraged to do so as long as they provide students of opposing viewpoints with a forum to respond, he said.

“We hope to make professors more aware of their bias and to allow students to make more objections,” Maugeri said.   “We’d be happy if a professor said, ‘Come by [during] my office hours if you’d like to respond.’ ”

Maugeri noted that the referendum would not be binding on the faculty. But in the wake of its passage, he said he planned to send a signed copy to the chairman of every department “informing them of what the students have affirmed.”

Siddique argued that that the bill will impede professors’ ability to teach effectively and to present on controversial issues. “How can a political science professor teaching about current affairs lead a discussion about the Iraq war if he or she is not allowed to present arguments on this controversial topic?” he asked. “Should biology professors be prevented from teaching evolution out of fear of offending creationists?”

College Democrats President Julia Brower ’08 echoed Siddique’s criticisms.

“The bill doesn’t always fit with the objective of a course,” she said. “What should be determining what a professor teaches should be a familiarity with the subject matter. Princeton students have the ability to take their own point of view or to take the initiative to go to a professor’s office hours.”

Maugeri said he had hoped that the initiative would be a bipartisan effort. The Republicans claimed that the bill was intended to protest against the recent vandalism of LGBT posters and other acts of intellectual intolerance on campus.

“We did not specify liberal bias as a problem.   We deliberately wrote it so it would be broad,” Maugeri says.   “But since it was written by the College Republicans, we’re facing a lot of upfront criticism.   People think that it is agenda-driven.”

The real crux of contention was the initiative’s inspiration, the Academic Bill of Rights written by conservative commentator David Horowitz, described by Siddique as an “ex-Marxist-turned-right-wing radical.”   Horowitz recently published a book entitled The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.

While terming Horowitz’s model too radical, Maugeri admitted that the College Republicans copied some of his choice of words in their version.

“Just because we don’t agree with his tactics doesn’t mean his objective is wrong,” Maugeri said.   “We don’t want to single out any professor for criticism.   But he’s cleverly written language that is rather vague.   We were hoping that Princeton students were smart enough to have a debate on this.”

Professor David Botstein, the director of Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, said the bill should not be applied to the sciences.

“I think the faculty is the faculty, and the students have to use their own good judgment.   We can’t make believe everything is a debate,” Botstein said.   “There could be misunderstanding.   When is it OK to teach intelligent design?   A philosophical debate distracts from the reason students want to learn the science.   But if I were in the humanities, I might have a very different argument.”

Some students said they are uncomfortable with the idea of approaching professors to disagree with their viewpoints. “If I did that, I’d be labeled as a major tool,” said Helen Rogers ’07.   “I feel like my professor would definitely resent me.”

Adam Gottesfeld ’07, a Woodrow Wilson School major, is from Los Angeles.