On the Campus
April 19, 2006:
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’
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
“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.”
Gottesfeld ’07, a Woodrow Wilson School major, is from Los Angeles.