Right Thinking

Their thoughts are ridiculed by other students and often, they say, by the professors themselves. They are required in class to watch movies to which they are opposed and then offered no forum afterward to discuss their opposition. They are the minority on campus, yet some lectures from some professors talk only of how they are history's oppressors.

They are the conservative students of the University of North Texas. And, dammit, they aren't going to take it anymore.

This fall, they'll post a "professor watch list" on the Web, putting on notice any professor whose politics seep into his or her syllabus or lecture.

"We'll be looking for the curriculum that isn't supposed to be there," says Chris Brown, a sophomore at North Texas who chairs the school's chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas, which is overseeing the project. "You know, the French professor who talks about the war in Iraq."

Tanar Dial is the executive director of Young Conservatives at UNT and a sophomore in political science. "This is blatant enough where people who don't have any political leanings notice the bias," he says. "We're trying to get students to speak out on this."

Brown and Dial have their critics. Some students say there is no agenda in the classroom. Others question how objective a report coming from the Young Conservatives of Texas will be. Professors wonder how, exactly, YCT will test this supposed partiality among their lot.

Dial says it's a problem needing an immediate solution. He admits, however, the biggest struggle is convincing students that his group will author an unbiased report. He's considered disassociating the YCT name from the watch list, "but basically if [YCT doesn't] do it, then no one else will."

As for the methodology, that's something YCT's still considering. They might do what Austin did last semester.

The YCT chapter at the University of Texas originated the watch list. Austin Kingman, the former chair of UT-Austin's YCT, says after compiling a list of professors--the suggestions coming from chapter members and students-at-large--two people looked at each name and the syllabus offered and then sat in on a lecture.

Ten professors were put on the watch list in Austin. All but one of them taught, allegedly, with a liberal agenda. Kingman maintains the report was unbiased and proof of a liberal indoctrination on campus. Dr. Edmund Gordon, director for the Center of African-American Studies at UT and one of the 10 professors on the watch list, thinks otherwise.

"It made me sad," he says, when he found his course, an introduction to African-American culture, on the list. "But I think that everybody has a right to evaluate their academic experience.

"[However] the implication that viewpoints not the same as mine were not tolerated--that certainly was not the case."

He doesn't know if the list will affect the number of students who enroll in the class this fall, when he teaches it again. He's not, however, worried about his job.

"I'm a person of tenure, and I have stature in the community," he says. But one thing bothers him: "I am concerned that this kind of thing is part of a larger trend in which people on the conservative spectrum have begun to attack academia as overly liberal, which could ultimately end up as the way for the state to step in and ultimately dictate what goes on."

To a certain extent, his fear is real.

Late last month, the Georgia Senate passed a non-binding resolution similar in wording to the Academic Bill of Rights, the bill authored by the conservative writer David Horowitz. The Academic Bill of Rights wants what YCT wants: more "balanced" syllabuses and lectures, and, when choosing faculty members, the Academic Bill of Rights calls for "a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives."

Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston was so taken with the bill, he introduced it to the U.S. House of Representatives as a resolution. Though critics say it has little chance of passing, they still call it an impingement on academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors, a Washington-based nonprofit with roughly 45,000 faculty members across the nation, posted this statement on its Web site after learning of Horowitz's bill: "The danger of such guidelines is that they invite diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession."

Back at UNT, Chris Brown says he's aware of Horowitz's bill but says he doesn't want his watch list to spawn into resolutions or laws; he doesn't want academic freedoms curbed. "We're not even looking for punishment or the administration to do anything," he says.

What he wants is for students to have their say. He wants professors to be held accountable.

Problem is, to whom should they be held accountable? To the conservatives who've filed the grievance? "We do have students who complain that we're too liberal or too conservative," says Dr. James Meernik, the chair of the political science department at UNT. "What students perceive of the faculty might often be crowded by their own personal beliefs. In general, if these groups want to do a systematic survey...we'll be more than happy to talk to them about this and see what they find...My concern is that you'll get anecdotes and the observations of a few."

Warren Burggren is the dean of arts and sciences at UNT. He says he wonders if a student's perception of bias is based on the professor taking a deliberately provocative or counter view to elicit response from the classroom. "The truth is there is a great deal of academic freedom allowed," he says. The question is one's aim in taking this approach, he says.

The YCT's Dial has wondered the same thing.

Provocative or counter views are "perfectly legitimate" tools by which to learn, Dial says, as long as a counterargument is given. Or the opinion somehow wraps itself around a larger theme.

But that isn't always the case, he says.

Last spring, Dial took a course from the communication studies department. It dealt with the freedom of speech movement and Supreme Court cases that have protected its mandates.

One day, while discussing Vietnam and symbolic speech, the professor, Dr. John Gossett, told the class how some dodged the draft, Dial says. The lecture devolved into what Dial describes as a "how-to" lesson in avoiding a future draft.

Gossett, Dial says, told the class that once you're drafted, the military makes you take an oath. To accept this oath, you must step forward. In stepping forward, you go from civilian laws to military law. "Whatever you do," Dial remembers Gossett telling the class, "don't step forward."

Dial says he does not see a correlation between symbolic speech and refusing to step forward.

Gossett is recovering from surgery and was unavailable for comment.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Kix

Latest Stories