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Magical Thinking

State panel creates bias out of thin air

State Rep. Tom Stevenson (R-Mount Lebanon) wanted us to know something right from the start of the legislature's Nov. 9 hearing on academic bias.


"Believe me when I tell you: This is no witch hunt," Stevenson told the few dozen in attendance at the hearing, held at the University of Pittsburgh's student union.


In one sense, Stevenson was right. Whatever their shortcomings in terms of due process, witch hunts usually have a witch in attendance. By contrast, while there was much talk about "liberal bias" at Pennsylvania's universities, almost nothing was said about anything professors actually did in a classroom. Instead, the hearing -- the first of four to be held statewide -- was dominated by three hours of testimony from Stephen H. Balch, of the National Association of Scholars.


That testimony relied heavily on surveys showing that professors are more likely to be liberal than conservative. Employees at Pennsylvania universities, Balch said, give more in campaign contributions to Democrats than Republicans. At Penn State, for example, staff and faculty were nearly four times as likely to back a Democrat. "[V]ery little has been pursue intellectual pluralism," Balch concluded.


Of course, party affiliation proves nothing about a professor's teaching style. Since Republicans increasingly favor teaching pseudo-sciences like "intelligent design," even conservative profs might support Democrats -- just for the sake of job security. Indeed, Balch's own chart showed that in the "natural sciences and math," the ratio of Democratic contributors to Republican is nearly nine to one. Why should that be? Is there a Democratic approach to calculus, one that slights conservative efforts to calculate inverse tangent functions? If not, where do these suspicions of liberal brainwashing come from?


Finally, if political diversity is so vital, why is Balch's organization as partisan as he accuses universities of being?


The NAS board of advisors has more than 30 members, but it's dominated by representatives of conservative think tanks such as the Manhattan Insititute and the American Enterprise Institute. It boasts famous neocons including Irving Kristol and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, plus luminaries such as Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, who once testified that the "kinky sexual practices" of gays threaten to "undermine civilization." (He did, however, credit gays for "excel[ling] in the arts.") Not surprisingly, Balch's organization gets ample support from foundations controlled by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife. In recent years, the Sarah Scaife Foundation has contributed a quarter-million dollars a year.


But state legislators weren't interested in those contributions. No one subjected Balch to the critique he leveled at teachers he's never met, or classes he's never sat in.


While Balch cited course curricula he didn't approve of, actual victims -- such as students complaining of ideological persecution -- were in short supply. Balch complained, for example, about a Temple University freshman reading program, where the reading list was apparently too liberal for his tastes. But as Balch acknolwedged, the books were selected by "a committee of Temple faculty, students, and staff." Who else should compile reading lists? Balch didn't say. He merely urged legislators to "consider a full-scale organizational overhaul" of state-supported universities if things didn't shape up.


Personally, I'm not sure we want Harrisburg running our schools. Just two blocks away from the Nov. 9 hearing, the Pittsburgh School Board was pondering plans to shut down 20 schools -- an effort to close a $47 million deficit that legislators helped to create. Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature raided school coffers, transferring tax revenue to help bail out the financially troubled city. Now the district is struggling to make ends meet.


It's easier to take money from school kids, apparently, than to pass a commuter tax that takes money from suburbanites. Similarly, it's easier to pursue liberal boogeymen, rather than address budget problems you helped create.


"It's as if the legislature has defined a problem that doesn't exist," Joan Wallach Scott, of the Association of American University Professors, later told the committee.


"Many of us [think] it may be an issue," insisted Gib Armstrong, the Lancaster Republican who pushed hardest for these hearings.


"On what grounds?" Scott asked.


Replied Armstrong, "Students we've heard from, faculty we've heard from."


There you have it: Professors being scrutinized for their political affiliations, defending their peers against vague charges made by nameless "students" and "faculty." But this isn't a witch hunt. Believe me when I tell you.

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