WASHINGTON -- Congress is taking the first steps toward pressuring colleges to maintain ideological balance in the classroom, a move that supporters insist is needed to protect conservative students from being graded down by liberal professors.
A resolution attached to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which has passed the House Education and the Workforce Committee and is expected to be taken up by the full House in September, tells colleges to grade students on the basis of their mastery of subject matter rather than on their political views.
The provision makes no mention of specific political leanings, but represents a victory for conservative student groups who have been arguing for years that American universities are bastions of liberalism seeking to impose their liberal orthodoxy on dissenters.
The measure is not binding, but some higher education analysts caution that it is not to be taken lightly. Colleges and universities, they say, should consider this a warning shot from a Republican-controlled Congress fed up with the liberal academy.
"If the universities don't move, all that's going to happen is this will build," said David Horowitz, a conservative author and a driving force in the free speech movement that inspired the resolution. "They're sitting on a tinderbox. Now we have resolutions. I guarantee you, if they thumb their noses at this, there will be statutory legislation."
The resolution, which also tells institutions not to take political orientation into account when allocating money for programs and declares that campus speakers should reflect a range of viewpoints, was made following several recent controversies involving politics in the academy.
Last year, Columbia University launched an investigation of its Middle East studies department after a student documentary accused professors of intimidating Jewish students when they tried to express views supporting Israel. Earlier this year, Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., reneged on a speaking invitation to University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill because he had published an article blaming America for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and comparing the victims to Nazis. The University of Colorado fired Churchill for his comments.
The resolution does not specify how colleges and universities should achieve political balance, only that schools should encourage expression of diverse views. But many college administrators fear that it could lead to congressional interference if students seek to explain low grades by saying they disagreed with their professor's political views. Also, the provision's biggest backers in Congress make no secret of their intent to make colleges more welcoming to conservative students.
Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, who introduced the original resolution that inspired the language in the higher education bill, said his aim is to protect conservative students from having their views squelched by the more radical members of the academy.
"The common knowledge is academicians are usually liberal, and it's cute because they're harmless ivory-tower types, but as the years have gone by, I think they have almost imploded among themselves," said Kingston, whose father and sister are college professors.
Kingston's original resolution, which he introduced last year, attracted attention from several influential Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. It was incorporated into the Higher Education Act in the spring after committee chairman John Boehner, a Republican of Ohio, and education subcommittee chairman Buck McKeon, Republican of California, pushed to have it included.
Democrats on the committee opposed the resolution vociferously, but a push to remove it from the larger bill during full committee markup last month was unsuccessful. Representative John F. Tierney, Democrat of Salem, Mass., who sought to block it, called the resolution an inappropriate incursion on colleges' freedom to set their own standards for teaching and curriculum.
Colleges and universities point out that the provision in the higher education bill has no force of law and is likely to have little practical effect on the way they do business, but some said they are disturbed by what they perceive as the government's attempt to stick its nose where it does not belong.
A Columbia University spokeswoman said the university stands behind president Lee C. Bollinger's statements that universities must be completely free from government control.
Higher education groups objected to Kingston's resolution. In mid-June, the American Council on Education released its own statement on free speech, signed by over two dozen other higher education groups, emphasizing that government should let universities determine their own policies on acceptable speech. Terry Hartle, senior vice president for
Still, resolutions similar to Kingston's are now being considered in 13 legislatures, including Massachusetts'.