By Rachel Corbett
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Women's studies departments face growing pressure as school starts this year. A legal push by conservative students against what they see as liberal bias takes particular aim at these programs.
(WOMENSENEWS)--"Academic freedom" may not sound like an expression to strike fear in the hearts of women's studies departments.
But as more and more schools and states pass legislation based on a document called the Academic Bill of Rights--Pennsylvania most recently joined the list in July--and support builds for it in Congress, many women's studies departments can expect increased intrusion this September.
One national organization is truly alarmed. "If one student believes that only one side of a topic was presented," a grievance could be filed, followed by a lawsuit, warned Ruth Flower, director of the department of public policy and communications at the Washington-based American Association of University Professors. "Women's studies would have to try to litigate or close down," she added, noting that the legal battles could deplete the already meager funding for many women's studies programs and departments.
Written by conservative activist David Horowitz, the Academic Bill of Rights is a model bill for universities and governmental bodies to adopt. It also demands an end to what its supporters claim are unfair grades for conservative students. It also requires professors to include a wide range viewpoints on a subject and an avoidance of controversial issues unless germane to the course's subject matter.
Proponents of the bill often charge women's studies programs with being liberal indoctrination that violates intellectual diversity.
In a handbook published by Students For Academic Freedom, a Washington group driving the legislative push to restrain what they see as liberal bias on campus, National Campus Director Sara Dogan singles out women's studies--along with cultural studies and English literature--as primary foes of intellectual diversity.
Allison Kimmich, executive director of the Maryland-based National Women's Studies Association, refutes this, saying women's studies already includes a wide variety of viewpoints.
"On the hundreds of campuses in the world, there are a lot of different ways it is being presented, nationally and internationally . . . I think it's very simplistic to suggest that the entire field of women's studies represents one particular ideological position."
Two leading women's studies professors--Donna Hughes and Phyllis Chesler--demonstrate Kimmich's point that the specialty includes more than one political stripe. Both women contribute to Horowitz's conservative online news and resource, FrontPage Magazine. Both are seen as radical feminists on some days, conservatives on others.
Chesler, former professor of psychology and women's studies at the College of Staten Island, now in her early 60s, is pleased with the attention the bill has drawn to what she views as a real lack of diversity within women's studies.
"There is a kind of feminist profile on campus, of who a feminist is and can be
. . . We silence (students) if they don't agree with every item on the list."
Chesler sees herself as an example of this. As a proponent of the war in Iraq and an ardent foe of prostitution, Chesler says such positions often distance her from other feminists.
The same goes for Hughes, a professor of women's studies at the University of Rhode Island who holds a doctorate in genetics and says she readily collaborates with right-wing, faith-based groups whenever she feels they are doing good feminist work, particularly with regard to trying to end the trafficking of women.
Carrie Lukas, policy director for the Independent Women's Forum, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that challenges campus feminism, also sees strong liberal bias in women's studies programs. "I find it fairly appalling. It's not about education; it's about activism." She added that women's studies "is the most egregious example of these overwhelmingly ideological and hostile trends."
Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum, based in Alton, Ill., who is a frequent campus speaker, agrees. "Universities are government financed. The faculty are employees," she says. "Why should this group of employees dictate the indoctrination?"
While Schlafly would like to abolish women's studies, others, such as Professor Mike Adams at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, have suggested that women's studies should incorporate more conservative views, such as sponsoring a pro-life speaker to increase diversity of thought.
Over the last two years, 16 states have introduced academic freedom legislation. At the federal level, the Academic Bill of Rights Resolution currently has the support of 30 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Opponents say the bill is a right-wing attempt to gain control of universities by co-opting minority status. Using the politically correct language of "diversity" and "equality," typically coded as liberal, the movement is said to undermine these very concepts in the process.
"There are already mechanisms in place that protect this principle, and they work well," reads a rejoinder from the American Association of University Professors. "Not only is the Academic Bill of Rights redundant, but, ironically, it also infringes on academic freedom in the very act of purporting to protect it."
Adds Flower from the association: "If the bill actually passed, it would throw the whole process of what gets taught in class into a legal genre. We will end up with curriculum according to politics instead of good pedagogy."
Students for Academic Freedom, with chapters in over 150 universities nationwide, blame an overabundance of liberal professors for limiting intellectual diversity. The group lobbies universities and government officials to adopt the bill. It cites a 909-person study finding of a 15-to-1 ratio of Democratic to Republican professors belonging to six large U.S. social science and humanities organizations, such as the American History Association.
"Earlier this year I received notification that I would have to read 'Nickel and Dimed' . . . full of anti-capitalistic views and 'Marxist rants'" a student at Pennsylvania's York College wrote in a July 27 posting on the Students for Academic Freedom Web site. "And to top that, the author was a feminist, socialist, Marxist . . . " the student said about author Barbara Ehrenreich.
Pennsylvania's legislature recently decided to create a select committee to investigate the level of diversity and freedom in universities and conduct public hearings in September.
"Students and faculty should be protected from the imposition of ideological orthodoxy," said the resolution's primary legislative sponsor, Republican Rep. Gibson Armstrong.
As Students for Academic Freedom expect campus activism to reignite this school year, some professors are bracing for what they see as a censorship push.
"Who will decide what is an appropriate reading list and curriculum for college courses?" asks Russell Jacoby, Professor of History at University of California-Los Angeles in a debate posted on FrontPage Magazine, "a committee of experts? Or students? Or government officials? Chosen by whom? Will the holocaust deniers have some seats? The creationists? The astrologers? Bureaucratically this is a disastrous idea. Intellectually it is a nightmare."
Rachel Corbett, a Women's eNews intern and freelance writer based in New York City, studied Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Iowa.
Students for Academic Freedom:
National Women's Studies Association
Statement on the Academic Bill of Rights:
American Association of University Professors
Academic Bill of Rights:
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