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

Locking up my bike on the way to the office on May 3, 2004, I noticed that events were underway in the large pavilion pitched in front of the Hoover Center, the right-wing think tank overshadowing my office in the Nathan Cummings Art Building at Stanford University. The voice on the microphone was introducing prominent ultra-conservative intellectual David Horowitz. As the representative for private universities on the steering committee of the California Conference of the American Association of University Professors (CA-AAUP), I had recently taken a pressing interest in Mr. Horowitz’s activities. He is, after all, the brains behind the mischievously-named-and-crafted Academic Bill of Rights – a document which co-opts post-modern ideas on the situated nature of truth and knowledge, along with politically inclusive language, to counteract what Horowitz depicts as the stranglehold of progressive politics on university campuses. [1]

Thanks in part, perhaps, to the protestations of the CA-AAUP, a version of this bill ( CA Senate Bill 1335) died in committee, with only one vote cast in its favor. And yet, prior to this, another version had actually been passed as law in Georgia with a 41-5 vote, and it is making the rounds elsewhere. Clearly the battle is only beginning. I wanted to see this guy.

By the time I had dropped off my bag and returned to the doorway of the climate-controlled pavilion, Horowitz was already speaking, to a packed audience consisting mainly of white-haired men with Hoover Center tote bags. To my disappointment, the parts of the speech that I stayed for were not about the university at all. Instead they amounted to a generalized rant about the war in Iraq. What’s Not To Like About This War? the speaker intoned repeatedly, with shrill voice and sweeping gestures. With each re-utterance he would offer more proof of how great the invasion has been in every respect. Looking smaller and angrier every minute, Horowitz went on to lash out at the portrayal of the war in the major American media, which he characterized as nothing more than a “megaphone” for “neo-communist” viewpoints.

It is disheartening to see such an intelligent man resort to such reckless overstatement, even when he’s preaching to a choir in need of a little martial uplift. (Nor did his audience seem especially receptive; I was impressed by their somber lack of reaction to his more strenuously “funny” digs at the war’s detractors.) Realizing that I had not garnered a single piece of substantive knowledge after ten minutes of attentive listening, I returned to my office to check the online news, and to prepare for my afternoon class.

The news was more of the same–the siege of Falluja, the Bush government’s efforts to suppress any mention of the embarrassing tide of American casualties, and revelations of the Abu Ghraib brutalities. I thought about how Horowitz, whose words were still echoing outside my window, would view these demonstrations of What’s Not To Like About This War. More evidence of the same old neo-communist, anti-American media conspiracy, no doubt. It also struck me that the readings for my afternoon art history seminar,Towards the Modern Museum, could easily be marshaled to support his image of left-dominated American university campuses. The more overtly political of these readings (written in 1980 by two leftists) proposes that the Louvre’s ultimate aspirations to an even-handed inclusiveness belie an inescapable ritual ‘script’ of Western triumphalism. The second reading was not unsympathetic to this view. [2]

In the class I openly critiqued the hyperbole of the first article, while applauding its attention to the fact that the museum is, indeed, an ideological space. (With Horowitz’s lurid performance fresh in my mind, I even compared the article’s overstated thesis to the conviction–equally widespread among left- and right-wing extremists–that the mainstream American media is simply the mouthpiece of the enemy within.) According to the way of thinking promoted by Horowitz and the Students for Academic Freedom, however, my forbearing critique would hardly have been enough to absolve the stain of the readings. Their embattled, politicized conception of intellectual diversity would require that any such left-wing content be balanced out by readings fostering a divergent ideological agenda. [3]

In other words, I would be required to find readings that were openly anti-leftist, and which espoused conservative ideas about the neutrality of the great western museums, the sanctity of nationhood, the superiority of classic Western art, and so on. Even if I could find readings intelligently defending such notions, I doubt that they would profitably advance the thinking in the seminar, given that the leftist critique was explicitly dissecting these received ideas. Although I love museums, I designed the class in order to subject ideas and institutions to critical scrutiny–not to perpetuate their uncritical celebration.

Another Horowitz-approved corrective would be to ensure that for every art historian inclined to assign ‘leftist’ material, the department hire a person who tends toward right-wing thinking. And reading lists are only one of the places in which Horowitz and his followers think university or government administrators should “protect” such ideological “diversity.” His Academic Bill of Rights also tries to ensure a greater spectrum of opinions (by which he invariably means left-to-right political positions) in matters of grading, curriculum development, selection of invited speakers, allocation of university funds, hiring, firing, promotion and tenure review.

Such legislation would be a very dangerous incursion on academic freedom, for all kinds of reasons. To begin in the broadest terms, I don’t think anyone should ever be forced to conform to the kind of simplistic, two-sided worldview that Horowitz is, in effect, trying to pass into law. Such Manicheanism famously led George W. Bush, in an address to a joint session of Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001, to declare that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Although nominally a defense of freedom, these words are really just a heavy-handed effort to force every American citizen (if not the whole world) to acquiesce to the terms of a perilously reductive world-picture.

Faced with such radically restrictive alternatives, any free-thinking person should, at the very least, resent the lack of a third radio-button that would allow her to opt out of both choices. In a free country, the decision not to consent to the conditions of either Button A or Button B – the decision to actively abstain from any directives to declare one’s loyalties, or categorize one’s self, according to such limited terms – should always be available. This freedom to resist anyone else’s ideological categorization is a fundamental democratic principle. It makes no difference whether the purported opposites are Bush Loyalists and Terrorists, Good and Evil, Freedom Lovers and Freedom Haters, Christians and Non-Christians, Pro-Family Values Folks and Anti-Family Values Folks, or People Who Liked Kill Bill and People Who Didn’t.

The two kinds of people in David Horowitz’s world-picture are alternatively described as members of the Left and the Right, or as Democrats and Republicans. This view of an ideological yin and yang works just fine for Horowitz, who has enjoyed remarkable political and financial success at being first a left-wing radical, and then a professional hard-line Republican. [4]

But what about those of use who feel we have little to gain–intellectually, professionally, or financially–by accommodating ourselves to either of Horowitz’s two stifling compartments? The real issue here is not how two people happen to feel about one method of carving up the world. It is, rather, the fact that I am working to preserve (and Horowitz is working to undermine) the liberty of belief and speech implicit in the Constitution and the First Amendment. As justices Roberts and Reed marvelously put it in 1943, “[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” (West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943)).

Despite his claim to be a defender of freedom, David Horowitz reveals an unnerving lack of regard for the kind of ideological abstention that the Virginian judges were working to defend. This disregard is glaringly evident in the way he arrives at the “statistics” which he regularly evokes as the very reason for implementing the Academic Bill of Rights. In a recent response to the AAUP’s condemnation of the Billand the thinking behind it, Horowitz baldly asserts that

a series of recent studies by independent researchers has shown that on any given university faculty in America, professors to the left of the political center outnumber professors to the right of the political center by a factor of 10-1 and more. At some elite schools like Brown and Wesleyan the ratio rises to 28-1 and 30-1.

He goes on to contend that this “huge correlation between political categories and academic standing” amounts to a “corruption of academic integrity.”

Because he doesn’t resort to his opponents’ tactic of supplying footnotes, I cannot be certain which “independent studies” produced the “10-1” left-right ratio, but all the circumstantial evidence points to two studies. These are the loopy 2001 “survey” by the Frank Luntz Research Center and the Horowitz-run Center for the Study of Popular Culture, and the complementary study, co-authored by Horowitz and Eli Lehrer, titled Political Bias in the Administrations and Faculties of 32 Elite Colleges and Universities . In a declaration very similar to the one in his retort to the AAUP, Horowitz contends in the latter study that “[t]he overall ratio of Democrats to Republicans we were able to identify at the 32 schools was more than 10 to 1.” This also seems to be the source of the more extreme “statistics” for Brown and Wesleyan.

If these are indeed the “independent” studies Horowitz has in mind, then the “Democrats” and “Republicans” mentioned in Horowitz’s AAUP retort are the 1,431 professors of Economics, English, History, Philosophy, Political Science and Sociology in various subjectively-selected “elite colleges and universities,” mostly in the Northeast, whose names seem to match up with those of registered party members in voter records. Even if one were able to reasonably extend the resulting findings to represent the ratio of Democrats to Republicans “on any given university faculty in America,” the question remains of how one could possibly use the exact same statistics to “show” just how much “professors to the left of the political center outnumber professors to the right.” Easy! All you need to do is ignore the existence of the 1,891 professors in the same departments who you estimate to be “unaffiliated” in their party loyalty.

I can think of only two ways of coherently defending such a move. On the one hand, one could argue that the unaffiliated majority simply doesn’t matter, thereby leaving Horowitz free to concoct his 10-1 generalizations about all professors on the basis of less than half his dubious little data sample. On the other hand, one could simply assume that the unaffiliated majority must ‘really’ break down into exactly the same left/right proportions as the card-carrying Democrats and Republicans, leaving us with a 10-1 statistic that reasonably represents everyone.

Take your pick. Whether Horowitz is declaring the political irrelevancy of the inconveniently-unaffiliated majority, or whether he is presuming to represent their unstated affiliations, his fundamental disregard for their abstention from self-definition is obvious, and his “10-1” ratio is ludicrous. This is the kind of ‘statistic’ you pray your opponents will use. And they do. The Students for Academic Freedom take their endorsement of Horowitz’s tactics to the limit by earnestly disclosing his patented technique of “How to Research Faculty Bias” as a link on their home page. [5]

Using this simple recipe, even the most clueless ideology buffs can now manufacture impressive-looking facts about professorial politics in no time.

The problem with such quantification goes beyond the deficiency of Horowitz’s particular method of data fabrication. It is hard to think of any method that would provide us with reliable statistics about such a subtle and complex phenomenon as personal ideology–not least in environments, such as elite humanities departments, which actively cultivate ideological subtlety and complexity. The inherent absurdity of any claim to objective ideological profiling raises the issue of how one could possibly go about implementing the kind of diversity that the Academic Bill of Rights is aiming to institute in the university. After all, to successfully foster “a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” and ensure against “political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination,” one would first have to develop a sufficiently broad and clear model onto which to map these differences and deviations, and then keep very close tabs on the professors.

How does Horowitz think one should go about gauging and administering the desired spectrum of opinion? He tends to avoid the subject, although when pressed on the matter in an online forum hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Horowitz chillingly asserted that such details of implementation are not a problem, or at least not his problem. [6]

Well it should be his problem. It seems to me morally repugnant to promote the legislation of substantial executive powers–powers which could seriously affect the careers of countless individuals–without caring about how (or even whether) such powers could be fairly exercised. Anyone who wants to make professors stick to the “appropriate knowledge” of their respective fields had better lay down some explicit guidelines detailing exactly (1) who’s doing the fostering, (2) what invests them with the special knowledge to have this authority, (3) where their standards of appropriateness are coming from, and (4) how these standards will be implemented. Horowitz’s academic interlocutors in the Chronicle forum were absolutely right to worry about these details of “appropriateness” assessment and enforcement, and he was wrong to dismiss them.

Horowitz argues that such worries are misplaced, because these details of implementation only have a bearing on the enforcement of ideological appropriateness, which has nothing to do with his own purely negative project of making sure every professor and student is free to pursue his or her own thing. Don’t believe it. Despite all his mollifying talk of freedom and fostering and diversity, it is clear that Horowitz would just love to see knowledge policed, and that he knows how to get it done. Witness the recent Chronicle article in which he takes deep offense at the UC-Denver political-science department for having “office doors and bulletin boards … plastered with cartoons and statements ridiculing Republicans.” In an effort to demonstrate why this material should not be up there, Horowitz asserts that “[w]e do not go to our doctors’ offices and expect to see partisan propaganda posted on the doors, or go to hospital operating rooms and expect to hear political lectures from our surgeons. The same should be true of our classrooms and professors, yet it is not.”

Excuse me? Even as someone who’s generally bored by propaganda, I would be delighted for my doctor to post political cartoons on his door. Why not give me something to look at, besides faded Norman Rockwell reproductions, while I’m waiting around on a vinyl slab in an over-ventilated smock? I would grant exactly the same cartoon-posting privileges to anyone–even professors in a political science department! As for the cartoons’ criticism of Republicans, what would you expect in early 2004, when Republicans are running the country? Nostalgic Clinton-bashing? It’s not as if we’re talking about kiddie porn here, Mr. Horowitz, and it’s not as if anyone is trying to make you clear the propaganda out of your office. And what’s the point of the analogy about “political lectures from our surgeons”? Surgeons are not lecturers, and surgery is not politics, so yes, a political lecture from a surgeon might be a little weird, at least in the context of an operating room. But professors are lecturers, and one of the things they habitually lecture about is politics – a deeply human enterprise with a bearing on many scholarly domains, including my own. So why do you want to start cleaning off my door and policing my lectures?

The real reason, at least in the examples regularly provided by Horowitz and the Students for Academic Freedom, is that certain thin-skinned ideologues don’t like the message. This is not a good enough reason to go around rewriting the laws. And in any case, the whole Academic Bill of Rights project is utopian, or dystopian. In order to meaningfully “foster” the kinds of “diversity” it purports to defend, one would first have to come up with objective or reasonable parameters for ideological stock-taking and policing–or, if one prefers, proactive anti-ideological diversity fostering. Whatever you want to call it, this monitoring would deprive people of fundamental liberties of expression, and legislating it would lead to an ethical and administrative quagmire. Don’t believe the doubletalk; Mr. Horowitz and the so-called Students for Academic Freedom are enemies of free thought and free speech.

David Horowitz’s Response

Larkin’s Reply


1: For unguarded critiques, see Horowitz’s articles in FrontPage Magazine, such as “The Battle for the Bill of Rights” , or “Missing Diversity On America’s Campuses” , where he writes: “Not only are the overwhelming majority of college professors fashionably ‘liberal,’ most faculties have a strong contingent of hard leftists whose views are extreme, and whose concentrated numbers make it possible for them to dominate (and even define) entire academic fields.” As evidence that things have gotten completely out of hand, Horowitz regularly offers the same few outlandish examples of “typical” left-wing behavior. He refers to a peculiar criminology assignment on “Why George Bush is a war criminal” with a compulsiveness not seen since the anti-PC “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” rants of the early ’90s.

2: The leftist article is Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, “The Universal Survey Museum,” Art History 3, no. 4 (December 1980); The first footnote of the book from the other reading is taken (Andrew McClellan, Inventing the Louvre , 1994) describes Duncan and Wallach’s article as “persuasively argued.”

3: General comments about reading lists in the Students for Academic Freedom Complaint Center (a place for anonymous students to denounce named professors) invariably point to the unhealthy preponderance of leftist material.

4: See Scott Sherman, “David Horowitz’s Long March,” ( The Nation , July 3, 2000), which traces Horowitz’s success from the 1962 book titled Student , which sold 25,000 copies, to his enormously well-funded career as a reactionary.

5: As a rule, Americans don’t like this kind of snooping into public records, as the media-savvy Horowitz clearly senses when pressed on the matter by Alan Colmes in a Fox News interview : ” COLMES : Here’s what concerns me, David. Is it true, as the Denver Post claimed, that you are encouraging students on your web site to go to use public records, to go to the county clerk’s office to find teachers’ political affiliations and then create a spreadsheet to have a list of teachers and where they stand politically? Is that accurate? HOROWITZ : Alan, look, I spent many years…you know, I actually was on this show. We had… COLMES : Is that accurate? That’s all I’m asking. HOROWITZ : No, I’m not encouraging people…I have one student who has gone to primary registrations just to show the skew.”

6: Faced with a very articulate question that begins “How would an Academic Bill of Rights be enforced on a campus level?” Horowitz–a bitter opponent of affirmative action–responds: “There is no enforcement proposed in the Academic Bill of Rights. This would be up to the institutions that adopt it. The university seems to have no problem promoting skin diversity. Why should intellectual diversity pose a problem?” To the next question (which, similarly, ends by asking “on what basis is ‘intellectual diversity’ to be assessed and with what expertise”) Horowitz simply replies: “No one is suggesting that an outside authority make these judgments. Read the Academic Bill of Rights.”

Dr Graham Larkin, Stanford University, Department of Art & Art History.
CA-AAUP VP for Private Colleges and Universities

To join the fight against the Academic Bill of Rights, get involved with the AAUP, tireless defenders of academic freedom since 1915.

©2005 CA-AAUP

This article was first published on the California AAUP website and is republished here by permission.

Comments are closed.