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A Lefty Under Every Lectern
Conservative crusader David Horowitz pushes his "Academic Bill of Rights"

By Susan C. Thomson

Fresh from a number of self-proclaimed victories, conservative culture warrior David Horowitz and his troops are massing for what is shaping up as their broadest attack yet in his campaign to, as he likes to put it, "take politics out of college classrooms." Their battle flag is an "Academic Bill of Rights" Horowitz drafted as an antidote to what he disparages as the pervasive political indoctrination of college students by leftist professors.

For a text, the legions have Horowitz's latest book, "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America," published in February. A collection of mini-profiles of, as Horowitz broad brushes them, a rogues gallery of faculty quacks on the far left, it's a sharp-shooting, sure-fire attention-getter.

As Horowitz himself says, getting attention is what this crusade of his is all about. And doing that is a skill he has personally honed to perfection in almost five decades as something of a professional—and mercurial—political polemicist. Though short of stature, he is long on fervor, quick with words, avid for the limelight, impossible to ignore.

For three years now, Horowitz has been on his higher-education offensive, advocating his "bill of rights" in campus speeches, testimony to state legislatures and personal appeals to college administrators.

In its broadest strokes, Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights is vanilla-bland and easy to swallow. It calls for classrooms free of all indoctrination and for ideological impartiality in the hiring, firing and promotion of faculty members, and in the grading and disciplining of students. But what amounts to the bill's fine print sends fearful shivers down the spines of some academics, who see there threats to their own freedom, even the specter of a new kind of McCarthyism.

It calls for:

  • Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences that reflect not just their professors' personal viewpoints.
  • Speakers, programs and other student activities that "promote intellectual pluralism."
  • Intolerance for obstruction of outside speakers and destruction of campus literature.
  • Institutional neutrality in areas where scholars in the same field disagree.

In late 2003, when the ink was barely dry on the bill, the American Association of University Professors went on record as supporting the "non-indoctrination principle" but taking vehement exception to other features the association said could pose "a grave threat" to traditional academic freedom by leading to quantitative standards for political diversity, requirements to teach discredited theories, and intrusions on faculty autonomy by courts, administrators and legislatures.

 
David Horowitz contends that many faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities try to indoctrinate students with left-wing views.
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Now, as a dedicated and watchful foe, the AAUP keeps tabs on state legislatures, where Horowitz's bill has found some of its most enthusiastic recruits. According to the AAUP's running tally, lawmakers in 17 states have advanced various versions of the Academic Bill of Rights. None has yet made it into law, and only the Georgia Senate two years ago went so far as to actually pass something like it, though considerably watered-down.

Last year, however, under threat of legislation, higher education leaders in Ohio and Colorado agreed to some of the bill's more palatable points. Horowitz claimed victory in both states and in Pennsylvania, where the General Assembly established a special committee that held hearings on the political environments for teaching and learning in the state's public colleges and universities—the most extensive public airings so far on Horowitz's issues. The committee has yet to produce its report.

The Academic Bill of Rights has also found favor at the federal level, notably with U.S. Representative Jack Kingston. In 2003 the Georgia Republican floated a "sense of the Congress" resolution featuring the bill's language almost word for word. The resolution didn't succeed, but similar wording found its way into early proposals for the House version of the higher education reauthorization bill.

The softer final version, merely endorsing campus free speech and students' rights to express their beliefs without fear of reprisal, resulted, in part, from behind-the-scenes lobbying by the American Council on Education, the chief advocacy organization for the nation's colleges and universities.

Those generalities are consistent with ACE's "Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities," published last year in obvious, though indirect, response to Horowitz and his "bill of rights." It proclaims, "Neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions." The document also defends "intellectual pluralism and academic freedom" and "the free exchange of ideas" on campus while insisting that not all ideas "have equal merit" and that government should respect colleges' and universities' need for autonomy on academic matters.

A more direct criticism of Horowitz came from Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers: "We think his writings and a lot of his remarks have been filled with mischaracterizations and outright deceptions."

 
Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, says Horowitz "is taken very seriously" by many higher education officials.
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Thirty higher education organizations—among them, the American Dental Education Association, the College Board, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the National Collegiate Athletic Association—signed the milder American Council on Education statement.

Terry W. Hartle, ACE's senior vice president for government and public affairs, said that the general endorsement of free speech on campus and of students' rights to express their beliefs without fear of reprisal is "a satisfactory solution to a complicated problem." But, he acknowledged, "There are still some people in the higher education community who are unhappy with our supposedly giving David Horowitz legitimacy. He is legitimate. David Horowitz is taken very seriously by higher education officials around the country."

And he's not going away. When asked to detail his immediate plans, though, he declined. "I don't really want to telegraph, because my opposition is so well funded, where I'm going to pop up next," he said.

Horowitz insists that legislation isn't his main objective. At the same time, however, Brad Shipp, field director for a Horowitz-sponsored organization called Students for Academic Freedom that claims chapters or contacts on more than 180 campuses, said, "Any time a legislator contacts us, we will assist them in any manner they want... We'll support legislation if it has to come to that."

Students from the SAF chapter at Florida State University testified for a proposed Academic Bill of Rights in that state last year. But, said chapter chairman Matt Sarrar, "The legislation was only meant to open the eyes of the universities all across the state." He sees the organization's emphasis as shifting now from the legislatures to the campuses themselves. "The future of this is going to be dealing with individual universities," he said, with an emphasis on "helping them develop a grievance process" for conservative students who believe they have been wronged by leftist professors.

As that process stands at Florida State now, Sarrar said, only individuals can file grievances, and his group of between 50 and 65 members has been unable to intercede for students who claim professors have invited them to drop courses or threatened them with failing grades or expulsion from class for their conservative views.

SAF's national office encourages all campus chapters to report incidents of alleged abuses and collects them in a "complaint center" on its website (studentsforacademicfreedom.org). Also posted there—under SAF's logo, which features three monkeys in academic gowns and hear-no-evil, see-no-evil and speak-no-evil poses—is a copy of the organization's student handbook, detailing how to start and organize a chapter, collect and document complaints and get publicity.

The organization's goals include, according to the handbook, persuading universities to adopt the Academic Bill of Rights as policy, and getting student governments to pass resolutions supporting a Student Bill of Rights, Horowitz's rewriting of his academic bill from a student perspective.

Horowitz said one of his immediate goals is to put the student bill "in the hands of students" so that they are aware of "their rights to a professional non-political education." According to SAF's national office, campus chapters have yet to succeed with a single university but have scored with at least a dozen student governments.

On some campuses, chapters of College Republicans have led the charge. This was the case in April at Princeton University, where undergraduates approved the Student Bill of Rights, with 51.8 percent in favor. Horowitz described the surprise result as an "historic victory" for his principles.

 
Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado who is notorious for calling victims of the September 2001 attacks "little Eichmanns," debated Horowitz in Washington, D.C., in April.
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Students for Academic Freedom has chapters on both public and private campuses, but the issues they and Horowitz raise loom largest and most menacingly for the public ones. That's because they get public money, said Shipp. "When you have a taxpayer-funded institution that is allowing its employees the ability to discriminate against students there for any reason, their political ideology or religious beliefs, you have a real problem."

Horowitz casts the potential consequences in economic terms. "The greatest threat to state funding (of public universities) is the one-sided political domination of the left" on campus, he said. And yet, he claims that, rather than being out for any professors' jobs, he wants only to expand political dialogue on campus and stop classroom proselytizing. Whether that's of the right or left, "I couldn't care less," he said.

This is a rare protestation of neutrality from a man whose personal, out-front political views have always been anything but disinterested. On most of today's issues, Horowitz comes down hard on the right. His website, frontpagemag.org, promotes the military and the Iraq war, cautions against the threat of "global Islamism," bashes the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations and illegal immigration, and promotes his books, including "The Professors."

In that book, he proceeds from the premise that college faculties are infested with leftover 1960s lefties who went to graduate school to avoid the Vietnam draft and, as "tenured radicals," now misuse their classroom lecterns as political pulpits. He goes on to offer, in biting prose, a series of three- to five-page profiles of academics he variously condemns as believers in Marxism, racial preferences, same-sex marriage, or as opponents of the PATRIOT Act, free-market capitalism, Israel, the "War on Terror," the Iraq war or U.S. Middle Eastern policy.

Horowitz claims the 101 professors named in his book are a representative sample from colleges and universities, large and small, public and private. But nine are from Columbia University; seven teach law; and a quarter are engaged in black studies, women's studies, peace studies, Islamic studies, "queer" studies or the like—curricular innovations of the past generation, all of which Horowitz deplores and dismisses as academically fraudulent.

As a counter to Horowitz's academic offensive, a coalition of liberal groups—including the AAUP, the American Civil Liberties and the American Federation of Teachers—launched the organization Free Exchange on Campus, and the website freeexchangeoncampus.org, earlier this year. They argue, in a 50-page, footnoted rebuttal to "The Professors," that the book is based on sloppy research and false premises, is full of misstatements and omissions, and that it "strongly evokes a blacklist."

Among Horowitz' 101 professorial piñatas, he beats longest and hardest on Ward Churchill, devoting most of his book's introduction to the provocative professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado who ignited a furor for infamously referring to the victims of the September 2001 attacks as "little Eichmanns" who deserved what they got that day. (Free Exchange does not defend Churchill.)

While the book disparages Churchill as a "scandalous figure" of "abhorrent views," Horowitz was not above scheduling a "debate" with him and advertising it as a drawing card for what he billed as Students for Academic Freedom's first national conference.

Students were a small minority among the 130 registrants for the two-day event at a Washington, D.C. hotel last April, but they dominated the audience for the evening debate at George Washington University.

The 260-seat auditorium was filled almost to capacity. Projected large on the back of the empty stage was the logo of Young America's Foundation, a co-sponsor of the event and a group that, according to its website, supports ROTC, favors the rights of campus conservatives and the ideals of Ronald Reagan, and condemns racial preferences, "anti-Americanism in higher education" and "left-wing campus bias."

The combatants entered, Horowitz stage right and Churchill stage left, a study in contrasts before they spoke a word. Horowitz, 67 and stubby to begin with, was further dwarfed by a suit jacket that hung loose and long on him. With his spectacles, trim white goatee and receding gray hair that gathers in neat, short curls at his neck, he could easily have passed for the college professor he proudly claims never to have been.

In jeans, cowboys boots and an ill-matching black T-shirt and jacket, Churchill, 58, stood tall—towering above Horowitz. His long, straight, middle-parted hair completed the image of the Native American he claims to partly be—falsely, according to his detractors, Native American groups among them.

A local talk show host, serving as moderator, lobbed the questions. First: Can politics be taken out of the classroom, and should it be?

Horowitz answered an emphatic yes, elaborating in pithy, well-practiced sound bites and making eye contact with his audience. "The very basis of a democratic education is you are taught how to think, not what to think," he said. Churchill, gazing out over the heads before him and speaking in meandering sentences, just as emphatically disagreed. His point: Because some academic disciplines are naturally political, and professors naturally have opinions, intellectual honesty demands that they own up to them for their students.

For the next hour and a half, the questions were pretty much variations on the original one. Answering, Horowitz was ebullient, Churchill dour. The tone was conversational. No sparks flew in what turned out to be less a debate than two parallel monologues. Except when Churchill accused Horowitz of "rowing with one oar" and "going in circles" in his reasoning, the odd couple barely engaged each other. That comment drew a laugh from an audience that, judging by only occasional scattered applause, was largely indifferent to both men.

Horowitz used some of the time allotted him to sneak in a few of his favorite zingers: that college professors can make $100,000 or more a year, get four months off and spend only six to nine hours a week in class; that education schools teach social justice, "code for socialism, or communism or redistribution of wealth"; that social work is often taught as "an indictment of the free market system"; that teachers unions encourage teachers to indoctrinate their students; that institutional racism is "a fantasy of the left."

The debate was called off just in time for Churchill and Horowitz to prepare for a scheduled live appearance on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" shout fest. With mostly the media types sticking around, the debaters squared their shoulders and stared into a bank of cameras. While they awaited their cue, somebody, as if to even up the match, handed Horowitz a box to stand on.

 
U.S. Representative Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, introduced a "sense of the Congress" resolution incorporating some of Horowitz' "Academic Bill of Rights," but the resolution failed.
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
From the only side of the conversation onlookers could hear, it was clear that Sean Hannity was taking on Churchill and was succeeding in getting under his skin. Churchill, amid frequent, exasperated protests that Hannity kept interrupting him, seemed to be trying unsuccessfully to score points in opposition to the Iraq war. At one point he suggested that Hannity owed him an apology. The back-and-forth went on and on, leaving little time for Alan Colmes to do his number on Horowitz, who, always quick with a quip, confessed to feeling "like a potted plant" in the proceedings. When it was over, Churchill and Horowitz laughed and shrugged their shoulders as if to ask, "What was that all about?" And then they went their separate ways.

The conference panelists and speakers, most of them Horowitz disciples, decried, among other things, speech codes, mandatory sensitivity training and a general lack of, and respect for, conservative thought on campus. Students told stories of being derided, even downgraded for expressing views contrary to what they described as higher education's prevailing left-wing orthodoxy.

But the conference's most conspicuous and energetic participant was Horowitz himself, waxing free with his takes on all topics and, in apparent attempts to establish his bona fides as a critic of the left, slipping in passing references to his own journey from that side of the political divide. This he lays out at length in his 1997 autobiography, "Radical Son: a Generational Odyssey": His parents were communists; as an undergraduate at Columbia in the 1950s, he was a committed Marxist; as a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1960s, he defended the Cuban revolution and demonstrated against nuclear testing and the Vietnam War; he went on to become a writer and editor for the glossy 1960s-era New Left magazine Ramparts and a friend of the Black Panthers.

The Panthers' descent into violence was "a big knock on the head," Horowitz wrote, the beginning of his revulsion against all things left. In 1988, having made a complete political about-face, he founded the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture to oppose leftism in academia, Hollywood and public broadcasting. He has been focusing on academia since 2003. The idea for the Academic Bill of Rights campaign crystallized for him, he said, when a professor offered students credit for protesting a speech Horowitz gave to the College Republicans at the University of Missouri.

Horowitz said he started the Center on an annual budget of $100,000. By 2004, according to the latest available tax return, it had ballooned to $3.9 million, of which $845,000 went to fundraising and $337,000 to his salary. A combination of such sources as events, books, subscriptions and mailing list rental brought in revenue of a little over $500,000; the rest of the money came from contributions, the return shows.

The bulk of the Center's financing comes from a base of 57,000 individual supporters, of whom maybe 1,000 give around $1,000 at a time, Horowitz said. "I think the majority of my donors are $50 donors. That's my strength." And he stressed that none of the money comes from corporations.

According to other public records, the Center's biggest contributors, donating in chunks of as much as $250,000, have been the Sarah Scaife Foundation Inc., the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Inc., the Randolph Foundation, and the recently shuttered John J. Olin Foundation. All are known for backing conservative causes.

Separately, the Randolph Foundation funded a study, published last year, which concluded that "a substantial shift to the left in party identification and ideology" has taken place in academia since the mid-1980s. The foundation's evidence is a survey showing that 72 percent of teachers at American colleges and universities identify themselves as liberal, compared with 15 percent who describe themselves as conservative, with the liberal tilt greatest at elite schools and in humanities and social sciences departments.

The popular image of academia as a bastion of liberal to leftist politics is of long standing. And complaints about it have erupted from time to time ever since the 1930s.

Contrary to that survey, Howard Brick, a professor specializing in intellectual history at Washington University in St. Louis, believes the last three decades have actually witnessed "considerable moderation" toward the right in the campus political climate. There's little evidence of political indoctrination or suppression of debate, he said. "Most faculty whom I would recognize as of the left make a decided effort to be fair, welcome debate and refrain from making their classroom presentations a matter of polemics."

Nor, according to a study published last year in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, are professors as a general rule punishing conservative students by giving them lower grades. Conservatives and liberals get comparable grades in sociology, cultural anthropology and women's studies courses, and conservatives get higher grades than liberals in business and economics, the study found.

Horowitz, however, deals not in general rules but specific cases, like that of Ward Churchill-an example whose usefulness to him may be running out. In May, a committee of University of Colorado faculty members found the controversial professor guilty of multiple violations of scholarly standards in his research. At press time, the committee's report was working its way through the university bureaucracy. Phil DiStefano, interim chancellor at the university's Boulder campus, has started proceedings to fire Churchill, but the final decision rests with the Board of Regents and university President Hank Brown.

Meanwhile, Horowitz has taken up a new case, a positive example from his perspective: Sean Allen, a conservative Colorado high school student who recorded his geography teacher making what advocates describe as a diatribe against George Bush in class. Allen took his evidence to conservative radio and television commentators, who made a hero of him. So did Horowitz, who presented him with the first "Sean Allen Award," to be given annually to a student who exposes political advocacy by high school teachers.

Horowitz intends to open a new, pre-college front in his campaign. Samuel E. Rohrer, a Republican state representative in Pennsylvania, signed right up, pledging to hold hearings there on an academic bill of rights for elementary and secondary school students.


Susan C. Thomson is a former higher education reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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National CrossTalk Summer 2006

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