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Academic Questions

Penn State Professor Michel Bérubé stands at the center of the debate raging over "academic freedom" -- and that's just where he wants to be.

Michel Bérubé teaches in a classroom with concrete-block walls and a linoleum floor. There are two archaic television sets up near the ceiling at the front of the room, and rows of long, nondescript tables throughout. Every morning, Bérubé has to set up a portable wooden lectern atop the table at the front of the room. The lectern has a split running across its top.

In this drab classroom, in a drab Penn State University building known as Old Engineering East, Michael Bérubé is corrupting your children. Behind a somewhat Mephistophelean beard, and with infinite patience and subtlety, he is turning them against you. He is teaching them contempt for everything you brought them up to believe.

Or so you'd think. In recent years, a growing chorus of conservatives has complained that academia is dominated by liberals bent on indoctrinating students. Last month, a state legislative panel recently wrapped up an investigation into academic bias at Pennsylvania's public universities; while it found little evidence of abuse, the clamor shows little sign of abating.

And Bérubé is at the center of it. "Michael is probably the best-known person articulating our perspective out there," says Robert Moore, who heads the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Bérubé publishes a blog,, that gleefully takes on critics of academia, and this September, he published a book-length retort, What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? His online arguments with archconservative David Horowitz have scorched the Internet, and earned Bérubé the distinction of being named in Horowitz's book The Professors: 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America

But while Bérubé's beard is Mephistophelean, and his patience is close to infinite, he isn't trying to brainwash his students today. He's trying to do something much harder -- get them to answer a question.

Why would Henry Park, the Korean-American protagonist in Chang Rae Lee's novel Native Speaker, give his son a name like "Mitt"?

This should be a gimme. Natve Speaker is all about assimilation: Henry is married to a white speech therapist, and his now-deceased child embodies the perils and promise America holds out to immigrants. Such a child could only have a name inspired by the great American pastime.

But the class isn't biting. An uncomfortable silence descends as nearly 40 students, all of them white, try to suss out the motivations of a Korean-American father. Finally Bérubé explains the metaphor.

"When we talk about assimilation," he adds, "we're talking about intermarriage, we're talking about language, we're talking about having kids."

With that neat summation of a 300-page critically acclaimed novel, the class shifts into a higher gear.

The students discuss how America's deeply conflicted attitudes about immigration shape the characters. And at one point Bérubé warns the class that in politics, "You can expect almost no honest debate of this issue any time in your lifetimes." And then he says, "I'll say something good about Bush. [His] immigration plan was actually not bad," though it was "shot down by his own party."

Moments like this are at the heart of the debate over "academic freedom." Are universities dominated by left-leaning professors like Bérubé? Are they trying to indoctrinate their students? Should Bérubé be talking about politics in the classroom in the first place?

Bérubé's answers are, respectively: "pretty much," "no" and "yes." But the students show little sign of brainwashing. Just before class, I turn to the student sitting behind me.

"I'm here to see if your professor is turning you all into godless communists," I said. "Is he?"

"Hardly," she said. And then she rolled her eyes.

Bérubé has been witness to disputes over campus politics almost since the day he left high school.

In fact, What's Liberal isn't his first book on campus politics: In 1995, he co-edited a book titled Higher Education Under Fire. "Academy-bashing is now among the fastest-growing of major U.S. industries," that book warned, "and the charges are as numerous as the bashers themselves: ... campus regulations thwart free speech; the Western cultural heritage is besieged by tenured radicals; ... undergraduates lack both reading skills and moral foundation; and ... college tuitions are skyrocketing."

There's justice to some of those complaints, Bérubé acknowledges today. What's Liberal flatly acknowledges that liberals dominate academia, and that some professors do abuse their power (see a review of the book here). It doesn't help that academia, like any profession, has its share of cranks. Consider Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who notoriously contended that some victims of the 9/11 attacks were "little Eichmanns." Campus speech codes don't help either.

Bérubé himself had an early encounter with political correctness as an undergrad at Columbia University. Notorious porn-magazine merchant Al Goldstein tried to buy a help-wanted ad from the student paper: "It basically said, 'If you're gay or straight, no matter what you are, you can write for Screw,'" Bérubé recalls. "The fact that he sent the ad to Columbia was, I thought, just wonderful cheek."

But the ad included the words "homos and dykes," and editors decided to pull it.

"I was a typesetter; I had no [role in] editorial policy," Bérubé recalls. "But the idea that people were going to say, 'Oh, I was going to write for Screw, but he's calling people 'homos and dykes,' ... I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"

Later, as a grad student, Bérubé learned that faculty can be victimized by PC policies too. His book describes he was accused of racial bias by a student who received a bad grade. While he'd been cleared of the charges, he was assured, no one had ever told him about the charges in the first place. Such routines, his book grouses, have "all the due-process guarantees of the Star Chamber."

But the real trouble was yet to come, thanks to two political sea changes.

The first was 9/11. The second was the arrival of David Horowitz.

Horowitz, a 1960s radical turned conservative attack dog, isn't mentioned once in Higher Education Under Fire. But in the years since 1995, he has become the nation's chief academy-basher, thanks partly to support from Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, and partly to his "Academic Bill of Rights."

At first blush, it's hard to see how the bill could cause so much distress.

"Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions," the bill asserts. That means faculty should expose students to the full range of viewpoints, and "not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination." Similarly, teachers should be hired, and students graded, on the basis of what they know, rather than their political beliefs. That's about it. There's nothing in there about punishment, or liberal bias at all.

Such language might not seem the kind of thing that would prompt an ugly feud between Horowitz and Bérubé. In fact, the bill borrows heavily from guidelines long endorsed by the hoary American Association of University Professors itself, which Bérubé belongs to.

But their disagreement has little to do with what Horowitz put in the Academic Bill of Rights, or with anything Bérubé does in class. It has more to do with what he and Horowitz do online.

Bérubé may be the world's first open-source academic. When a reviewer panned What's Liberal on, for example, he responded with a nearly 400-word post of his own. And he can spend up to an hour or two a day posting on his blog.

Many of those posts concern his teen-age son Jamie, who has Down's syndrome. "I think anything you can convey about the surprising maturing and development of a teen-ager with Down's syndrome is useful," he says. (His son has also inspired another book, Life as We Know It, and an academic sideline teaching in the field of disability studies.) Posts also document Bérubé's on-ice exploits as an amateur hockey player, along with a slew of inside jokes and Monty Python references. But he also posts scholarly treatises as well.

Part of blogging's appeal, Bérubé says, was that it is "like writing for magazines and papers, only more so." In the scholarly journals, "you submitted an essay and you might hear back in eight or nine months. You publish in a year or two, and someone might eventually read it. Who knows? By the end of the decade they might respond." By contrast, "The blog is almost hourly response."

And that's how the trouble started. As Bérubé acknowledges, "If I hadn't been able to respond to Horowitz in real time, I think things would have been very different."

In fact, if it weren't for the Internet, the two might never have argued at all. To promote his cause, Horowitz established the group Students for Academic Freedom, whose motto is "You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story." And the SAF Web site,, provides an online "complaint center" for students to anonymously post allegations of professorial bias.

Horowitz claims the site is not just for conservatives to use, "but for students of any political persuasion to comment on faculty behavior they find abusive." But while a disclaimer acknowledges that the SAF has "not investigated these complaints," it uses them "to illustrate the kinds of complaints that students have."

And that's just the problem with Horowitz, explains Bérubé. A friend calls the complaint center "a searchable bathroom wall," he says: His book contends that it is a "nationwide whining network ... for the least prepared ... students in the class."

Horowitz, he says, is simply disingenuous -- using his Web site, and a conservative echo chamber on Fox News and elsewhere, to misrepresent campus diversity. For example, take Horowitz's claims that faculties refuse to invite him as a guest speaker on campus. Bérubé's book notes that when challenged by Fox's Bill O'Reilly about his appearance at New York's Hamilton College, Horowitz falsely claimed "the conservative kids invited me. It's not like the faculty brought me up there." When Bérubé called him out on his blog, Horowitz acknowledged: "I fibbed about my invitation to Hamilton."

Horowitz, meanwhile, insists Bérubé seizes on such minor issues to ignore the larger point: that conservative perspectives are excluded from campus.

In some ways, actually, the two men aren't that far apart. Bérubé, for example, has suggested an "independent ombudsman" to look into student complaints.

But as Horowitz has pushed his critiques of academia, Bérubé has used his blog to call Horowitz a "sorry old fraud" who was becoming "truly and fully unhinged." Over on his own site,, Horowitz has responded that "radicals like Bérubé" had turned "their entire political focus [toward] getting our terrorist enemies off the hook."

Eventually, Horowitz included Bérubé in his book 2006 The Professors: 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America -- basing the inclusion on excerpts from Bérubé's writings, rather than Bérubé's classroom behavior. (Bérubé's blog responded to the honor with customary glee. "The whole thing is a complete sham. It's a travesty. It's an outrage, I say, an utter outrage. First of all, Horowitz didn't even bother to rank us.")

But while the two men have traded barbs for years, they only just met in November. The Chronicle of Higher Education paid for their lunch and reported their repartee. During the lunch, Horowitz pledged to "retract" his remark about terrorists, and contended that he included Bérubé in The Professors "because I knew that you would get excited and generate a lot of publicity." Which, Bérubé says, kind of proves the point.

But for all the vitriol Horowitz has directed at Bérubé, and that Bérubé has directed at Horowitz's "searchable bathroom wall," Bérubé's number isn't on it. Not a single student has complained about Bérubé on the site.

For the most part, in fact, the "academic freedom" debate is raging most strongly off campus.

That's true even at Penn State, which experiences a political firestorm almost every semester. In recent years, the campus has been up in arms about issues ranging from Rene Portland -- the basketball coach who allegedly discriminated against players she thought were lesbians -- to "Portraits of Terror," a senior art project featuring portraits of Palestinians who'd attacked Israelis.

One issue that hasn't caught fire, however, was the Academic Bill of Rights. This despite the fact that it brought both Horowitz and a state legislative committee to campus.

"I think students here are pretty apolitical and apathetic," says Todd Taylor, the president of Penn State's College Republicans. And academic freedom is "not a topic that's normally discussed."

In fact, when asked to name an example of a professor infringing on his academic freedom, Taylor pauses. He had a Spanish professor "who talked about her opposition to the war in Iraq," he says, and he suspects most abuses are in that vein: teachers using their classrooms as soapboxes.

But have his politics ever hurt his grade? "It's never happened to me personally, but I think it goes on. It's like racism: Just because you don't hear many accounts of it, that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen."

Students aren't the only ones who've responded to the "academic freedom" debate with apathy.

To listen to some campus critics, you might think that academics gather in sinister cabals to plan the corruption of your children. If only that were true, say some.

"I think most of my colleagues are woefully ignorant in terms of what's going on out there," says Robert Moore, the AAUP officer and sociology professor at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's College. "They're so immersed in what they do." As a result, he says, Bérubé has a strange kind of celebrity. The AAUP regards Bérubé as its champion, and right-wing critics "see him as the Devil incarnate," says Moore. "But I don't think a lot of people even at Penn State know him."

"One of the ironies of the Horowitz campaign is that most faculty are so apolitical," Bérubé agrees "You're not going to lose any money betting on what the faculty doesn't know about."

And that would be fine if it were just a matter of Horowitz proffering position papers, Bérubé says. "But once it gets into the hands of legislators, who knows what's going to happen?"

What happened in Pennsylvania was the House Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education.

In 2005, state Rep. Gibson Armstrong (R-Lancaster) sponsored House Resolution 177, which blithely asserted that "Academic freedom is likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech." Accordingly, it empowered a panel of legislators to tour state-supported campuses and determine whether "the right to explore and express independent thought is available to and practiced freely by faculty and students." Were students exposed to a diverse range of viewpoints? Punished for asserting viewpoints the professor didn't share? Were faculty hired on the basis of competence, or because of what they believed?

At the time, Armstrong told City Paper, he was acting on the basis of complaints from dozens of students "who said, 'I was singled out; I was treated differently.'" While Armstrong declined to name any of the students, he did say he'd heard stories of a Penn State engineering professor who required students to watch Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 shortly before the 2004 election.

With that evidence in hand, Armstrong's panel held hearings at schools around the state.

During those hearings, he solicited testimony from the likes of Stephen Balch, head of the conservative National Association of Scholars. When the panel came to Pittsburgh last November, Balch argued that in some departments, professors supporting Democrats outnumber Republican backers by as much as 30 to 1.

Not surprisingly, he said, such departments routinely exclude conservative perspectives.

He cited, for example, Temple's summer reading programs, which require incoming students to read a book for discussion. Balch testified: "In the past four years, three of the books" -- including Fast Food Nation and Lies My Teacher Told Me -- "provided highly critical views of America. The most recent book, West of Kabul East of New York ... focuses on the theme of ethnic identity, an endemic preoccupation of academic multiculturalism."

"I'm not saying political views should be excluded," Balch says today. "I'm just saying there's something unnatural when only one side's views get included."

This is one case where professors aren't cramming an agenda down students' throats: Temple's books are selected with input from students. But that "doesn't matter," says Balch. "The administration should give a directive to the panel that it's not supposed to socialize people in a political way. By insisting on a more diverse reading list, he says, the administration would be showing "the statesmanship that goes into making a university a true marketplace of ideas."

But choosing texts and curricula are traditionally a job for professors. And the problem, says Bérubé, is also that if you want to enhance academic diversity, the administration are the last people to trust. "When it comes down to students actually getting shit from professors that damages their grade, that's their weakest case." Many of the biggest outrages, he says, "stem from the administration."

In fact, while Armstrong's panel reaped headlines, hardly anyone noticed that Penn State was sued in federal court this summer. With legal support from the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, student A.J. Fluehr charged that administrators had created an "Orwellian speech code" which, among other things, limited political advocacy to such places as "HUB-Robeson rear sidewalk pad (not the Patio)" and the "Osmond Fountain Area (after 5 p.m.)." Fluehr argued that conservative beliefs about homosexuality, for example, might violate campus prohibitions against "behav[ing] with contempt for other individuals or groups."

David French, the ADF attorney who represented Fluehr, says that while a lack of academic balance is a serious problem, abuses by administrators are a greater threat. "People will get quite upset about the actions of an individual teacher," French says, but "any teacher has a limited sphere of influence, and what is far more common is the institution systematically doing it."

French sympathizes with Horowitz's crusade: "Professors say the only people who can judge the community of scholars is the scholars themselves," he says. "But in what other sphere of life is that the standard? Not for doctors or lawyers."

Still, having testified before Armstrong's committee, he wasn't impressed with it. "When I described how many schools had these speech codes, their eyes just glazed over," he recalls. "They couldn't wait to get to whether students were required to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 in engineering class. If you want a sensational story, are you going with a speech code that sounds like bureaucratic nonsense, or the guy who says 'the little Eichmanns got what they deserve'?"

Armstrong's panel must also have disappointed anyone looking for such horror stories. Penn State, for example, logged a grand total of 13 student complaints about faculty conduct in five years -- a period during which 177,000 courses were taught. As for those Penn State students who were forced to watch Fahrenheit 9/11? Horowitz himself had to admit in testimony he had no evidence that it ever happened.

But Todd Taylor says Armstrong's panel was "a success. Now we have an avenue with which to pursue a grievance. Before, we didn't really have a chain to go through." And if you believe students are being suppressed, a lack of complaints proves your case just as well. As Balch says, "I think there are various pressures on students not to say these things.

"There have been some good outcomes of the investigation," he says. "I think a message has been sent. Everyone in the university will think seriously about their obligations."

Horowitz himself is declaring victory. Thanks to the attention being paid to academic freedom, he argued in a Dec. 8 Philadelphia Inquirer, Temple and Penn State had established new protections for students that very year. "For the first time in state history, students were provided with academic-freedom rights," he wrote. At Penn State, he said, a Faculty Senate resolution passed this summer asserted that professors should not try to "indoctrinate" students.

"In other swords, no speeches on the Iraq war in engineering classes," Horowitz enthused.

But officials at both schools deny that Armstrong's panel prompted new policies. At most, they say, it inspired them to better publicize policies they already had.

Temple "has never received a single formal complaint from a student under the umbrella the panel was interested in," spokesperson Ray Betzner says. And while the school did place the process for handling student complaints under the new heading of "Student and Faculty Academic Rights and Responsibilities," Betzner says there's been no other change. Complaints about professors are still taken through a "chain of command," that leads from an informal complaint to a student ombudsman all the way up to a formal appeal to the school's provost.

Similarly, "The policy that was passed at Penn State is not new," says Dawn Blasko, associate professor of psychology and chair-elect of the Faculty Senate. "Our policies were kind of fragmented, but I don't think this changes anything."

But change may be coming. Professors are in danger of losing influence to administrators, legislators -- maybe even students themselves.

"Now when parents and children come on campus, they're going to want to see the apartment complex with all the amenities," says Robert Moore. And a consumer mentality applies in the classroom as well. "I don't want to sound authoritarian, but we have an obligation to communicate that not all ideas are equally sound. But you have in this post-modern era in which everybody's ideas are as good as anybody else's. And to the extent that our culture encourages this relativistic, and consumerist view of higher education, we have to deal with that."

Already, most schools use student-evaluation forms to evaluate instructors. Combine that with conservatives like Horowitz -- who are only too willing to publicize student complaints, and the relationship between student and professor is shifting.

"The idea that 'This is offensive, and we're going to take a grievance to the administration' took hold at the same time as the 'I'm paying $20,000 a year, and what am I getting for it?'" Bérubé says. "And there you've got rich terrain for mischief."

In fact, Bérubé says, if you really want to punish conservatives, you could just make them really face the challenges he faces every time he walks into Old Engineering East, the challenges he wrote an entire book about.

"They think it's all about the conservative students not getting enough Hayek in their economics classes," Bérubé says. But why stop there? "We could bring the Black Caucus to testify, the gay and lesbian students to talk about how they feel. It would be every student who felt he or she has experienced a campus climate that is not sufficiently supportive."

The university's critics and would-be overseers, in other words, would be forced to reconcile the conflicting demands that faculty face every day. And those demands may only grow stronger, as activists encourage student resentment, and colleges cater to student desires.

"I don't want to say 'Bring it on' -- that phrase never works out," says Bérubé. But if more critics knew what teaching was really like, "I think people would be surprised."

An earlier version of this article was corrected to clarify the political views of A.J. Fluehr.

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