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Bill would require colleges to report on intellectual diversity

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Legislation in the Missouri House would require the state's public colleges to report annually on specific steps taken to ensure and promote intellectual diversity and academic freedom.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, Mo., said she filed House Bill 213 partly in response to a case last year involving a former student at Missouri State University.

In November, the Springfield school settled a lawsuit filed by a graduate who claimed her freedoms of speech and religion had been violated. The university agreed to pay $9,000 to Emily Brooker, a May 2006 graduate. The school also said she could attend the school to pursue a master's degree in social work free of charge for two years. In addition, the university said it would provide $3,000 a year in living expenses for two years of graduate education.

Brooker had sued the university, alleging that one of her professors had demanded that students sign a letter to lawmakers in support of allowing homosexuals to be foster parents. Brooker refused to sign the letter written by the professor, saying it went against her Christian beliefs.

The professor said her stand violated the social workers' code of conduct. As a condition of graduation, the lawsuit said Brooker was forced to sign a contract requiring her to conform to that code of conduct.

The university investigated the matter and subsequently reassigned the faculty member to nonclassroom duties.

Cunningham said Thursday she's heard from other college students in Missouri who also complain they don't feel free to express their opinions in class.

The bill has drawn support from college students and graduates, she said. "I am getting a lot of positive feedback."

The measure has the backing of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on issues of academic standards, academic freedom and accountability in higher education.

"This is really an issue of professional standards," said Anne Neal, president of the group.

"This a question of higher education accountability, making sure students are guaranteed a quality education in the classroom."

Said Neal, "It is really not a question of liberal versus conservative."

She said a recent study, commissioned by her group, found that nearly half of the students at the nation's top 50 universities found politics was frequently interjected into classes, even when it had nothing to do with the subject.

A third of the students surveyed said they felt they would receive lower grades if they disagreed with their professors, Neal said.

Southeast Missouri State University political science professor Dr. Rick Althaus sees no need for such legislation. "This sounds like swinging a hammer at a problem that may not exist," he said.

The bill, he said, would take university staff time away from more important duties associated with educating students.

Southeast, he said, already has specific appeal procedures in place that students can use if they feel they were graded unfairly by their teachers.

Cunningham's bill is titled the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act. It would require public colleges to report annually to the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education regarding their efforts to promote intellectual diversity.

The measure includes suggestions on the steps colleges can take to achieve that goal. They include:

* Bring diverse speakers to the campus and annually publish a list of panelists and speakers.

* Include intellectual diversity issues in student course evaluations.

* Develop hiring and tenure policies that protect people against viewpoint discrimination.

* Develop methods to ensure that conflicts between personal beliefs and classroom assignments can be resolved to achieve educational objectives without requiring a student to act against his or her conscience.

* Create a position of institutional ombudsman on intellectual diversity.

The legislation would require the report be distributed to state lawmakers by Dec. 31 each year, starting in 2008. It also would mandate that every public college in the state post its report on the school's Web site.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123


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