House seeks to rein in 'rogue' teachers

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Students at Missouri's public colleges would have some legal protection against professors who bully students with their political or religious beliefs under a bill approved by the state House.

The House earlier this month overwhelmingly approved the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act in a 97 to 50 vote. However, lawmakers predict it won't win approval in the Senate this session.

Still, supporters say the House measure draws attention to a problem on college campuses and hope that schools will take it upon themselves to deal with the issue. Critics say it amounts to academic meddling.

Supporters like state Rep. Nathan Cooper, R-Cape Girardeau, don't view it as classroom censorship.

"I am not for dictating curriculums on campus or what teachers can teach and cannot teach, but there has to be some type of self regulation among the universities," Cooper said. He and state Rep. Scott Lipke of Jackson both voted for HB 213.

"The message needs to be sent to rogue professors who indoctrinate rather than teach that this activity will not be tolerated at universities," Cooper said.

Even if the bill goes nowhere in the Senate, Cooper said he hopes it will prompt universities to police the situation on their own.

Students at Southeast Missouri State University who are members of College Republicans say they believe some students are afraid to state their views in class for fear that they will be graded down by professors.

"They are going to keep their mouths shut because they have to make sure they have good grades," said Lucas Presson, who heads the Southeast chapter of College Republicans. Some students, he said, don't realize they are being indoctrinated. "They hear those opinions. They think of them as factual statements," he said.

But Presson said he's not looking to get rid of liberal professors. "I have no problem with liberal professors being hired. I don't think there needs to be a conservative litmus test," he said.

Presson said he watched Al Gore's global warning documentary for extra credit in a physics class last semester. "I had no problem with that whatsoever," he said. "It wasn't required."

Fellow Southeast College Republican Lauren Baruzzini said she sometimes is reluctant to speak up in class. "Sometimes I don't even voice my opinion because I feel like the teacher will say something and put my answer down," she said.

While the local chapter didn't take an official stand on the bill, the Missouri College Republicans organization lobbied heavily for passage of the measure.

Faculty members at Southeast say they don't penalize students who think differently than they do.

"I think it is bizarre that anyone who is conservative would support this," said Southeast biology professor Allen Gathman. "Existing laws are sufficient to handle that type of thing. I cannot insist that my students hold a particular opinion."

Gathman and other faculty members say the legislation would result in added paperwork for colleges. The legislation 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 steps colleges can take, such as:

* Assess the current state of intellectual diversity on campus.

* Incorporate intellectual diversity into grievance procedures and allowing students to file complaints directly with their school's governing board.

* Encourage a balanced variety of campuswide panels and speakers.

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

* Address intellectual diversity in teaching guidelines including the viewpoint that subscribes to the validity of the Bible.

* Include intellectual diversity issues in student course evaluations.

* Hold meetings periodically with students to determine if the students feel they are receiving a sound and respectful education.

* Create an institutional ombudsman on intellectual diversity.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said she filed the bill 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.

Emily Brooker 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 agreed to pay $9,000 to Brooker, a May 2006 graduate. The school also said she could attend the university to pursue a master's degree in social work free of charge for two years. In addition, it would provide $3,000 a year in living expenses for two years.

Gathman and political science professor Rick Althaus said the professor was out of line in the Brooker case. But they said they believe that was an isolated incident that doesn't warrant a new law.

Althaus said faculty should be free to discuss issues without fear of losing their jobs. "Part of the reason that universities long, long ago developed a concept of tenure was to allow faculty to explore controversial issues, to allow them to play devil's advocate," he said.

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