The ‘Bigfoot’ Committee

A Pennsylvania House Committee investigating ‘academic freedom’ at PA colleges and universities concluded two days of hearings today at the University of Pittsburgh. Last summer the Pennsylvania House passed HR177, which created a select committee to hold hearings across the state and investigate whether the academic rights of conservative students are being violated at public institutions of higher education.

While not opposed to academic freedom, the ACLU is concerned these efforts actually intended to stymie it. As students, faculty, and administrators repeatedly testified at the U.Pitt. hearings, colleges and universities already have a functioning, effective grievance policy if a student feels they are being discriminated against for any reason. The House hearings appear to be a colossal waste of time (and taxpayers’ money) that could also have a chilling effect on free speech at PA public institutions of higher education.

Rep. Armstrong, who spearheaded the resolution and hearings, claimed to have received complaints from 50 students alleging discrimination from liberal professors. He didn’t, however, produce any evidence or specifics.

If the Armstrong/McCarthy analogy is too tempting for you, it got particularly acute today when Armstong exited the hearing mid-morning, thus leaving the main investigator’s seat empty for the reminder of the day. Some students couldn’t resist the comparison yesterday, and began chanting “HUAC GO AWAY!” in the middle of the proceedings (see today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article for more details on yesterday’s hearing).

This morning’s testimony largely consisted of Rep. Armstrong quizzing the Provost James V. Maher about issues ranging from faculty members’ campaign contributions to the term ‘social justice’ appearing on the School of Social Work’s website.

Some committee members clearly had heard enough.

Complaining that their entire investigation had yielded no cause for concern, Rep. Surra compared it to a committee sent to look for Bigfoot. “This is a solution in search of a problem,” he stated.

Another committee member added “I don’t even think it’s a solution.”

The Provost was followed by Burrell Brown, Chair of the Department of Business and Economics at California University of PA, who testified against the necessity of such hearings. The ‘public comments’ portion brought a succession of students and faculty, all opposing the need for House oversight of professors’ politics.

One committee member noted he had “grave concerns” about what the committee was doing, claiming the resources spent on hearings could be better allocated to “issues that are actually on taxpayers’ tongues,” like healthcare, cost of higher education, and infrastructure.

Based on today’s hearings alone, it is easy to dismiss the likelihood of anything developing from these proceedings. But the ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ has been adopted in nine states already, and proponents like Rep. Armstrong are clearly tenacious. Two or three more hearings are expected in the coming months at school across the state, and we will try to have an ACLU presence to report back on each one.

2 thoughts on “The ‘Bigfoot’ Committee

  1. “HUAC Go Away! Let Our Professors Stay!” The students chanted in the William Pitt Union’s Assembly Room
    at the University of Pittsburgh. They were referring to the
    McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee. But
    this was not the 1950s, it was November 9, 2005. And this time
    not HUAC, but Pennsylvania’s own House Education
    Committee was holding hearings on “liberal bias” and
    ìindoctrination” on college campuses.

    The hearings are the
    work of Representative Gibson Armstrong, who “worries” that
    colleges “permit liberal-left advocacy and activism to flourish
    openly.” Armstrong’s House Resolution 177 says that faculty
    should be hired “based on their professional competence,”
    encourage “critical thinking and… independent thought,” and
    grade students “based on academic merit rather than ideology.”

    Yet the hearings produced no evidence that the contrary
    was occurring at Pitt. The university has a grievance procedure
    for students who believe they are the victims of discrimination
    based on political beliefs, but none have been filed. Nor did
    any students come to testify against their professors.

    But that did not keep the committee’s invited speaker,
    Stephen Balch, president of the conservative National
    Association of Scholars, from rambling on for two hours that
    most professors are liberals. Rep. Armstrong asked if the
    university was “concerned that, among Pitt professors who
    contributed to recent political campaigns, 119 contributed to
    Democratic candidates, while only 33 supported Republicans.”

    There is something to be concerned about. But it’s not
    professors” political beliefs, since those are not taken into
    account when they are hired. It is that Armstrong is ìworriedî
    that colleges do not clamp down and control campus political
    life. The committee will publish its conclusions after holding
    hearings at three other colleges. University Senate Vice
    President Michael Pinsky warns that the potential for state
    legislation presents “profound threats to academic freedom.”
    According to testimony by Joan Wallach Scott, a former chair
    of the American Association of University Professors, the
    principle of academic autonomy means that the government
    shouldn’t tell teachers how to teach.

    Of course, a politician’s objectivity on the issue of politics
    in academia is doubtful; the Republican-controlled House
    Education Committee’s vote on whether or not to hold the
    hearings was, with only one exception, divided along party
    lines. Unfortunately, the committee’s own conservative bias is
    not only directed against teachers.

    Thanks to the State Board of Education, this semester is
    the first that students at Waynesburg and Penn-Trafford
    schools will be enrolled without the threat of corporal
    punishment. What? That’s right, Penn-Trafford, the school
    district with the lowest paid teachers in the county, beat up to
    10 students in each the middle school and high school in 2005,
    according to superintendent Deborah Kolonary. Oddly
    enough, hitting was not allowed in the elementary school. One
    former Penn-Trafford student told me their schoolís drug
    problem was so serious their principal berated them at

    Greene County schools were even worse. A 2000 Office
    of Civil Rights survey reports that they beat 190 students: 8.3
    percent of their student body. ìEight out of nine cases, the kid
    left smiling and thanking you,î said Waynesburg Central High
    School principal Al Barbaro, which reveals the schools’ odd
    mentality. Their “happy paddlings” were no more successful
    at improving discipline either; Waynesburg ranked 70th of out
    501 school districts in the number of out-of-school
    suspensions, following schools with larger enrollments.
    Pittsburgh City Schools banned school beatings in 1973.
    By last year, three school districts in Western PA were the only
    ones to still use corporal punishment. A survey in October
    showed only 19 percent of Pennsylvania citizens supported it.
    But those 19 percent were way over-represented on the House
    Education Committee. They had been preventing the abolition
    of corporal punishment in schools since 1996.

    Representative Daryl Metcalfe from Butler County stated
    eloquently, “I think you’re going to do harm to the policy that
    school districts are able to set and give them less leverage.”
    Metcalfe might have been unaware that the United Nations
    Convention on the Rights of the Child condemns the kind of
    “policy” that allows teachers to hit students with two-foot
    long boards. But he did know that the Pennsylvania PTA and
    the American Civil Liberties Union gave their expressed support
    for the ban. Just as the committee ignores teachersí right to
    express their own political beliefs, it also ignores each student’s human right not to be beaten.

    The Senate Education Committee didnít take any action
    when the ban was submitted. The House Education Committee
    voted against it. But the governor’s Inter-regulatory Review
    Commission approved the regulation anyway, and the Attorney
    General signed corporal punishment into extinction. It is time
    now for HUAC to follow.

    – By Hal Smith
    for “NEW PEOPLE,” the Thomas Merton Center’s monthly newspaper

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