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.