restricted access 7. Conservative Activism in Higher Education: The Pennsylvania Hearings on Academic Freedom
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Conservative activism on higher education issues has grown since the 1990s. Notable changes have occurred and some battles have been won, such as in the area of affirmative action in university admissions. California, Florida, and Texas curbed admissions policies relying on affirmative action in their public university systems. The California action came as a result of a referendum adopted by state voters, a ballot initiative backed by an African American member of the California Board of Regents, Ward Connelly. In Florida, gubernatorial and legislative action brought about significant change. The Texas developments came as a result of a federal appeals court ruling. Other states, including Michigan, have modified and limited, but not abandoned , their use of affirmative action in university admissions in the wake of two Supreme Court decisions in 2003. Christian-oriented student organizations have sought, and obtained, recognition as official student organizations with access to student activity fees on many campuses. Opposition to embryonic stem cell research has limited federal funding to cell lines existing prior to August 9, 2001, the date on which President Bush authorized federal funds for existing cell lines. Conservatives have lobbied the federal government to sponsor research on the effects of sexual abstinence on academic performance in high school. Conservative causes in the field of education and research have made their way into the public dialogue and have achieved some degree of policy impact. 7 Conservative Activism in Higher Education: The Pennsylvania Hearings on Academic Freedom 117 ch07 6/30/08 10:47 AM Page 117 Yet the efforts to portray political bias in the classroom as a major problem have been notably less successful. Only a minority of the American public is convinced that bias in the classroom is a serious problem in American universities .The issue ranks fifth behind high tuition,binge drinking,crime on campus, and low educational standards as a concern among Americans, according to a recent survey by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, and fewer than 10 percent of Americans think that political bias is the biggest problem facing higher education .1 Nor did our own national survey find that college professors,even the very conservative, think that bias in the classroom is an important issue. Why has classroom bias failed to have much of an impact? This chapter presents a case study of a situation in which the issue achieved some saliency and was the subject of an official legislative inquiry. A full-dress inquiry and a series of dramatic hearings were held across the state in 2005 and 2006. The conclusion was that bias is“rare,”but that state colleges and universities should have effective grievance procedures in place so that students can complain if professors push their own political views inappropriately. The main reason for the limited policy impact is that conservatives themselves do not agree on whether there is a problem, much less on what to do if a problem does arise in this area. The target of the inquiry—radicalism on campus—was fuzzy from the outset. Some conservative critics pointed to a reified “postmodernism”as the culprit. Postmodernism is, presumably, a blend of secularism and avant-garde pedagogy that disparages, and stands in opposition to, traditional Western values. Postmodernism, however, is a conception that grew out of the Western tradition itself and encompasses important Western values. We do not pause here to debate and define postmodernism, or modernism for that matter, nor to elaborate on our reasons for placing modernism and postmodernism securely within the Western cultural tradition. For our purposes, it suffices to note that postmodernism is not a concept readily grasped by politicians or by the general public. For that matter, academics themselves have some trouble knowing what postmodernism is and therefore knowing whether they are for or against it. Even within the disciplines most familiar with postmodern thinking, the lines of demarcation between liberal and conservative positions are difficult to draw.2 Are the“Old Moderns”(for example,Wolff, Stein, Eliot, Joyce, Hemingway , Pound, Faulkner, and Lawrence), who do not in general enjoy high favor and attention from today’s humanities professors, different from the postmodernists ? If so, how do they differ? Cultural conservatives and traditionalists in the humanities are not notably lucid on the point. The critics do not say whether the moderns are exempt from the ills of postmodernism or whether, 118 Conservative Activism in Higher Education ch07 6/30/08 10:47 AM Page 118 in their view, the whole field of modern literature went to...