Controversy is looming over the proposal of a bill in the State Senate that would establish an academic bill of rights for Rhode Island’s three state colleges.
The bill is modeled on a draft academic bill of rights designed by Students for Academic Freedom, a national organization with ties to conservative activist and author David Horowitz.
Republican senators Leo Blais and Kevin Breene and Democrats Michael Damiani and Leonidas Raptakis proposed 2005-S 0392, “An Act Relating to Higher Education,” on Feb. 10.
The bill includes a clause directing the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education to “adopt an academic bill of rights designed to ensure the academic freedom of students and faculty at the state’s institutions of higher learning, such that grading and hiring will not be tainted by consideration of the political, religious, or nonreligious beliefs of students or faculty, and designed to ensure that the state’s educational campuses are an environment of open discourse lacking any quality of indoctrination.”
The bill would affect the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island.
The chain of events that led to the introduction of the bill began in a fall 2004 class at Rhode Island College. Bill Felkner, a graduate student in social work, received a failing grade from James Ryzcek, director of field education in the School of Social Work, in “Policy and Organizing.” Felkner disagreed with the professor’s opinion regarding educational benefits for people on welfare.
The case received local publicity, and Brian Bishop, a talk show host on WLKW-AM, contacted Breene to push for an academic bill of rights.
Horowitz, who has been a vocal proponent of the academic bill of rights, has a history with Brown. In March 2001, The Herald printed an advertisement submitted by Horowitz titled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist, Too!” A student coalition condemned The Herald’s decision to print the ad and removed 4,000 copies of the paper from distribution points. Horowitz later gave a lecture at Brown in October 2003 titled “Academic Freedom: A Vanishing Ideal at Brown.”
Brad Shipp, national field director of SAF, said the organization supported the bill but was not making any efforts to directly lobby for it. “Academic freedom is an important issue, and we support the bill. But I certainly have not spoken to the four senators,” he said.
One organization opposing the bill is the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP released a statement in December 2003 condemning SAF’s draft legislation as a threat to academic freedom.
Frank Annunziato, executive director of the University of Rhode Island chapter of the AAUP, said the bill would curtail the very freedoms it claims to protect. “We oppose this bill, because it’s not what it says it is. It is designed to create academic chaos and invite attacks on professors,” he said.
He cited the clause “quality of indoctrination” in the bill as something that could be misconstrued to “prevent professors from raising tough questions.”
Annunziato also said there was no need for additional legislation, as most universities already have internal policies governing academic freedom. “Every institution has policies in place to protect students. We don’t need more legislation enshrining this. We do not need to be monitored in this way. This bill is designed to make everyone into milquetoast,” he said.
In an interview with The Herald, Horowitz dismissed the arguments given by the AAUP as “spurious.”
He said the AAUP had vested interests in preventing the academic bill of rights from becoming law. “These people are insecure and they’re scared of hiring peers who disagree with them. Entrenched power never gives up without a fight, and they’re not going to give up easily,” he said.
Horowitz argued the bill would protect the principle of academic freedom in universities, pointing to the high ratio of liberals to conservatives in faculties as evidence of imbalance. “Students are only getting one side of the story, and you can’t get a good education that way, with a one-sided faculty,” he said.
He cited Brown as an example of an institution that has begun to recognize the importance of academic freedom. The Undergraduate Council of Students passed a resolution on academic freedom modeled on the academic bill of rights in April 2004, and President Ruth Simmons addressed academic diversity in her Spring Semester Opening Address on Feb. 1.
“Ruth Simmons, who I have a lot of respect for even though her political views are very different from mine, has taken the lead in supporting intellectual diversity. Steps need to be taken to protect institutions like Brown,” Horowitz said.
Similar legislation has been proposed in a number of states, including Ohio and Tennessee. Only one state, Colorado, has passed such a bill so far, while a similar bill is currently being deliberated in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Rhode Island Senate Committee for Education is currently deliberating the bill before it goes on the calendar. Both SAF and AAUP said representatives would attend hearings when dates are announced.
“Whether the bill passes this time, I don’t know. But in the long run, I think eventually it’ll be passed. Academic freedom is an inevitability,” Horowitz said.
Annunziato was more blunt about his hopes for the bill. “I hope that it gets killed,” he said.