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Focus Less on Political Views of Faculty and More on Teaching Students to Make Informed Judgments in the Face of Conflicting Views, New Statement on Academic Freedom Argues
Association of American Colleges and Universities Board of Directors Issues Statement on “Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility” and Calls for Shift in Focus of National Debates
Washington, DC—January 6, 2006—The Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities released today a statement on “Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility.” It will be the topic of discussion sessions at AAC&U’s upcoming annual meeting, January 25-28 in Washington, DC. The statement argues that current debates about the personal political views of faculty members distract attention from a far more urgent challenge of providing a quality education that prepares all today’s college students to succeed and make a difference in a complex world. The statement suggests that the “academic bill of rights” developed and promulgated by activist David Horowitz and proposed as legislation in several states “inappropriately invites political oversight of scholarly and educational work.” Instead, the statement reaffirms the importance of protecting the academic freedom of faculty members to make judgments about curricula and guide students as they “acquire the learning they need to contribute to society.”
While those arguing for the “academic bill of rights” suggest that the most important issue to address is whether competing ideas are presented to students, this statement argues that the more important challenge is to develop students’ independent critical judgment so that they can evaluate and choose among the wide array of ideas and perspectives to which all college students are exposed. As the statement notes, “Teaching the debates is important, but by no means sufficient. It is also essential that faculty help students learn to engage differences of opinion, evaluate evidence, and form their own grounded judgments about the relative value of competing perspectives.”
The statement observes further that “Students do not have a right to remain free from encountering unwelcome or ‘inconvenient questions’ …[and] in considering what range of views should be introduced and considered, the academy is guided by the best knowledge available in the community of scholars.”
Consistent with the views expressed by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in his recent ruling on the legal challenge to the policy of teaching Intelligent Design in biology classes in Dover, Pennsylvania, the AAC&U statement suggests, “creationism, even in its modern guise as ‘intelligent design,’ has no standing among experts in the life sciences because its claims cannot be tested by scientific methods. However, creationism and intelligent design might well be studied in a wide range of other disciplinary contexts such as the history of ideas or the sociology of religion.”
“Focusing on the balance of political opinions among faculty members draws attention away from the more important educational task of preparing students for the challenges they will face in the 21st century,” said AAC&U president Carol Geary Schneider. “To do this, we must ensure that far more college students develop the analytic capacities and sense of social responsibility fostered by a liberal education. Today’s students need to develop the skills of analysis and critical inquiry by exploring and evaluating competing claims and different perspectives under the guidance of experienced faculty members.”
As the AAC&U statement notes, “Ensuring that college students are liberally educated is essential both to a deliberative democracy and to an economy dependent on innovation.”
“The AAC&U board of directors believed that issuing a statement on this topic was important at this time because the current national debate on these issues has distracted the nation from the truly urgent issue of improving academic achievement for all students,” said AAC&U board of directors chair, Ronald Crutcher, president of Wheaton College. “We simply do not see the purported crisis around intellectual diversity that some political activists have alleged. Instead, we believe that today’s students are being exposed to a wide array of views on many important issues and that more and more campuses are working hard to ensure that their students achieve the sophisticated skills of analysis and problem solving they need for success in today’s world.”
The AAC&U board of directors statement was released online today. Printed copies will be available in March. The statement and a series of articles responding to it will appear in the spring issue of AAC&U’s journal, Liberal Education.
See www.aacu.org/About/statements for the full text of the statement. See www.aacu.org/meetings/annualmeeting for information about the meeting where the statement will be discussed.
AAC&U is the leading national association concerned with the quality, vitality, and public standing of undergraduate liberal education. Its members are committed to extending the advantages of a liberal education to all students, regardless of academic specialization or intended career. Founded in 1915, AAC&U now comprises nearly 1,300 member institutions—including accredited public and private colleges, community colleges, research universities, and comprehensive universities of every type and size.
AAC&U functions as a catalyst and facilitator, forging links among presidents, administrators, and faculty members who are engaged in institutional and curricular planning. Its mission is to reinforce the collective commitment to liberal education and inclusive excellence at both the national and local levels, and to help individual institutions keep the quality of student learning at the core of their work as they evolve to meet new economic and social challenges.