Brown: He just wants students to have their say about profs.
Brown: He just wants students to have their say about profs.
Mark Graham

Lessons to the Left

Their thoughts are ridiculed by other students and often, they say, by the professors themselves. They are required in class to watch movies to which they are opposed and then offered no forum afterward to discuss their opposition. They are the minority on campus, yet some lectures from some professors talk only of how they are history's oppressors.

They are the conservative students of the University of North Texas in Denton. And, dammit, they're not going to take it anymore.

This fall, they'll post a "professor watch list" on the Web, putting on notice any professor whose politics seep into his or her syllabus or lecture.

"We'll be looking for the curriculum that isn't supposed to be there," says Chris Brown, a sophomore at North Texas who chairs the school's chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas, which is overseeing the project. "You know, the French professor who talks about the war in Iraq."

Tanar Dial is the executive director of Young Conservatives at UNT and a sophomore majoring in political science. "This is blatant enough where people who don't have any political leanings notice the bias," he says. "We're trying to get students to speak out on this."

Brown and Dial have their critics. Some students say there is no agenda in the classroom. Others question how objective a report coming from the Young Conservatives of Texas can be. Professors wonder how, exactly, YCT will test this supposed partiality among their lot.

Dial says it's a problem needing an immediate solution. He admits, however, that the biggest struggle is convincing students that his group will author an unbiased report. He has considered dissociating the YCT name from the watch list, but he says that if YCT doesn't do it, "then no one else will."

As for the methodology, that's something YCT is still considering. They might do what students in Austin did last semester.

The YCT chapter at the University of Texas originated the watch list. Austin Kinghorn, the state YCT executive director and former chair of the UT-Austin chapter, says that after compiling a list of professors -- the suggestions coming from chapter members and students at large -- two people looked at each name and each syllabus offered and then sat in on a lecture.

Ten professors were put on the watch list in Austin. All but one of them taught, allegedly, with a liberal agenda. Kinghorn maintains the report was unbiased and is proof of a liberal indoctrination on campus. Edmund Gordon, director for the Center of African-American Studies at UT and one of the ten professors on the watch list, thinks otherwise.

"It made me sad," he says, when he found his course, an introduction to African-American culture, on the list. "But I think that everybody has a right to evaluate their academic experience."

However, he continues, "the implication that viewpoints not the same as mine were not tolerated -- that certainly was not the case."

He doesn't know if the list will affect the number of students who enroll in the class this fall, when he teaches it again. But he's not worried about his job.

"I'm a person of tenure, and I have stature in the community," he says. "I am concerned that this kind of thing is part of a larger trend in which people on the conservative spectrum have begun to attack academia as overly liberal, which could ultimately end up as the way for the state to step in and ultimately dictate what goes on."

To a certain extent, his fear is well founded.

Late last month, the Georgia Senate passed a nonbinding resolution similar in wording to the Academic Bill of Rights, the bill authored by conservative writer David Horowitz. The Academic Bill of Rights wants what YCT wants: more "balanced" syllabi and lectures, and when choosing faculty members, the Academic Bill of Rights calls for "a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives."

Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston was so taken with the bill, he introduced it to the U.S. House of Representatives as a resolution. Though critics say it has little chance of passing, they still call it an impingement on academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors, a Washington-based nonprofit with roughly 45,000 faculty members across the nation, posted this statement on its Web site: "The danger of such guidelines is that they invite diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession."

Back at UNT, Chris Brown says he's aware of Horowitz's bill but that he doesn't want his watch list to spawn resolutions or laws; he doesn't want academic freedoms curbed. "We're not even looking for punishment or the administration to do anything," he says.

What he wants is for students to have their say. He wants professors to be held accountable.

Problem is, to whom should they be held accountable? To the conservatives who've filed the grievance? "We do have students who complain that we're too liberal or too conservative," says James Meernik, chair of the political science department at UNT. "What students perceive of the faculty might often be crowded by their own personal beliefs. In general, if these groups want to do a systematic survey…we'll be more than happy to talk to them about this and see what they find…My concern is that you'll get anecdotes and the observations of a few."

Warren Burggren is the dean of arts and sciences at UNT. He wonders if a student's perception of bias is based on the professor's taking a deliberately provocative or counterview to elicit response from the classroom. "The truth is there is a great deal of academic freedom allowed," he says. The question is one's aim in taking this approach, he says.

The YCT's Dial has wondered the same thing.

Provocative views or counterviews are "perfectly legitimate" tools by which to learn, Dial says, as long as a counterargument is given, or the opinion somehow wraps itself around a larger theme.

But that isn't always the case, he says.

Last spring, Dial took a course from the communication studies department. It dealt with the freedom-of-speech movement and Supreme Court cases that have protected its mandates.

One day, while discussing Vietnam and symbolic speech, the professor, John Gossett, told the class how some dodged the draft, Dial says. The lecture devolved into what Dial describes as a "how-to" lesson in avoiding a future draft.

Gossett, Dial says, told the class that once you're drafted, the military makes you take an oath. To accept this oath, you must step forward. In stepping forward, you go from civilian law to military law. "Whatever you do," Dial remembers Gossett telling the class, "don't step forward."

Dial says he does not see a correlation between symbolic speech and refusing to step forward.

Gossett is recovering from surgery and was unavailable for comment.

As for the Houston area, professors can relax -- at least for now. The nearest watch list is planned for the main Texas A&M campus.

Kinghorn estimated there are a "few hundred" members in the YCT's 11 university chapters -- none of them in Houston. One YCT member will attend grad school in the fall at the University of Houston, raising hopes of the group to establish a beachhead there, says state chairman David Rushing.

The lack of a chapter doesn't mean the city and its universities are a hotbed of liberals or oblivious to conservative attitudes, Kinghorn insists.

"UH is largely a commuter school, which makes it rough to get something going," he says. "And Rice is just so small. It is hard to get a contact there, and the culture there is kind of different.

"We've found that people there aren't as willing to rock the boat, so to speak," Kinghorn says about Rice. "They just go about their business."


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