Academic Bill of Rights

The move by the Republican governor and legislature of Colorado to make something called the Academic Bill of Rights a part of state law raises a lot of interesting questions. At first glance it would seem to harmonize well with the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Compare our stated goals in ‘About B and W’ with item one of the Academic Bill of Rights.


There are two motivations for setting up the web site. The first is the common one having to do with the thought that truth is important, and that to tell the truth about the world it is necessary to put aside whatever preconceptions (ideological, political, moral, etc.) one brings to the endeavour. The second has to do with the tendency of the political Left (which both editors of this site consider themselves to be part of) to subjugate the rational assessment of truth-claims to the demands of a variety of pre-existing political and moral frameworks.


All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives. No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.

Actually ours is better, because there is an obvious tension between those two sentences in theirs. If no one is to be hired on the basis of beliefs, how are faculty to be hired with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives? That seems like a contradiction in terms, on the face of it. But leave that aside. The fact is that we do think truth claims about the world should be made independently of political commitment – but it doesn’t follow that we feel inclined to call in the police when we think that principle is being violated. We’re not libertarians, but libertarians can remind us all of things it is useful to be reminded of, one of which is the fact that laws are not just inert statements, they imply the power of the state in the background if not the foreground. They are, in short, coercive.

That being so, the notion of a codified legally binding Academic Bill of Rights immediately suggests difficulties. Who would decide the law was being violated? What would the criteria be? What would constitute evidence? Would the testimony of students be sufficient? If so, what of the possibility that for instance a student who’d received a C, or one who’d been bored, or one who simply disagreed with a teacher would file charges? If student testimony would not be sufficient, would administrative staff sit in on classes? Would they go undercover? Might that lead to an underage hence underexperienced and underqualified administration?

And then, as this article at History News Network points out, it would not always be clear-cut where and what the political bias would be. We may think we know it when we see it, and in some cases maybe we would, but what about the more complicated ones? And what about all the issues that don’t divide along a neat left-right axis? What about points of view that aren’t really particularly political at all but that the legislature doesn’t happen to agree with? So perhaps we begin to see the advantage of dealing with such issues by means of discussion, debate, argument, books and articles and websites, rather than handcuffs and subpoenas. One side can say ‘Your bias is showing, you’re ignoring this evidence and this and this,’ and the other can reply ‘No, I’m looking at this and this,’ and readers can judge for themselves. Peer review, falsifiability, standards of evidence are really the best tools for getting at the truth in this kind of case, not fingerprints and DNA tests and identity parades.

Another aspect is the question of what David Horowitz and others take to be a highly suspicious absence of ‘registered Republicans’ in political science departments. But that sounds exactly like the irritatingly incomplete statements of uncritical proponents of affirmative action. ‘There are fewer blacks and Hispanics in elite universities.’ Very well, and that may be the result of systematic or unsystematic injustice of various kinds – but it also may not. It’s not absolutely straightforwardly self-evident that it is, so just making the statement and letting it go at that is inadequate. There may be – and probably is – a mix of factors: poverty, bad schools, taxation distorted by residential segregation, discrimination, but also peer pressure, families with little education, and so on. So with the over-representation of ‘registered Democrats’ in political science departments. It could be all bias on the part of those doing the hiring, but it could also be that the kind of people who want to read and think and write about political science (or history or sociology or philosophy) are also the kind of people who tend to vote Democratic. That could be just a fact of human life, a matter of preferences and tastes, likes and dislikes, choices and inclinations, an area of life that conservatives normally do not approve of legislating. Trying to interfere with the pattern, trying to correct a perceived problem or imbalance could well produce even worse problems and imbalances. It could in fact become pure ‘social engineering’ of the kind that Republicans usually despise.

An article in Reason further points out that the Bill extends academic freedom to students as well as teachers, and that that could lead to some dodgy outcomes.

As enforced rules, they open the door to, say, a biology student lodging an official complaint because her professor gave short shrift to Creationism, or her boyfriend demanding a higher grade because he’s convinced his poorly composed paper on the abortion debate was actually marked down for its political content. Suddenly, “academic freedom” starts to sound like an encroachment on the freedoms of the faculty.

So often the way. We talk grandly about freedom and rights, but when it comes down to it, all too often your freedom is in tension with mine and vice versa. Her right to read in peace and quiet is in tension with his right to play Dream Theater at top volume. Students’ freedom to hear views of their choosing comes squarely into conflict with teachers’ freedom to teach the subject as they understand it. It’s easy to think of any number of ways this could happen, and there would be no way to harmonize the two. Since the teachers are supposed to be teaching the students and not vice versa, it is not self-evident that in case of a tie the decision should go against the teacher. Bills of Rights can be excellent things, but they need to be used with caution.


Internal Resources

What’s Not To Like About The Academic Bill of Rights

Graham Larkin on What’s Not To Like About The Academic Bill of Rights.

Letter to David Horowitz
Graham Larkin wonders if it’s really about balance.

Academic vs. Horowitzian Truth Standards
An Open Letter from Graham Larkin to David Horowitz.

More Than a Stretch
Are Stanley Fish, Todd Gitlin and Michael Bérubé really in favor of the Academic Bill of Rights? Graham Larkin asked them.

External Resources

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