College Try

“People don't believe me,” grouses David Horowitz, “but I actually have a great affection for the idea of the liberal university.”

His critics can be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Horowitz is at the high point of what has been a multi-decade campaign to rein in radical academics. Backed by studies purporting to show “a 95 percent left-wing faculty” at colleges around the country (studies often funded by the same foundations supporting The Center for the Study of Popular Culture, or CSPC, which pays Horowitz more than $300,000 a year for his work as its president), he has made a mission of stamping out what he sees as pervasive liberal bias. In the process, he has raised a maelstrom that many academics say is doing untold damage to America's universities.

His current tool is the “academic bill of rights,” or ABOR, which he has succeeded in adding to at least 12 states' legislative agendas. Georgia passed a version of the bill in March 2004; a push in Colorado let up in the same month when the state's public universities agreed to adopt its provisions. Ohio, both Horowitz and the ABOR's opponents agree, is the most crucial of this year's battlefields.

For the most part, the ABOR is a milquetoast screed of general principles for colleges and universities, emphasizing “the pursuit of truth” and other lofty ideals. The bill's resolutions largely restate goals and practices to which universities already aspire, such as nonideological grading. At its heart, the bill aims to protect students and faculty “from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature,” and to mandate, as the bill concludes, that “academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers.”

In practice, say the ABOR's opponents, this pabulum could cripple academics' and universities' ability to teach. “Academic institutions,” argues a statement by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the bill's chief critic, “perform their work precisely by making judgments of quality, which necessarily require them to intervene in academic controversies.” A law or policy establishing extradisciplinary standards, the AAUP contends, “would profoundly corrupt the academic integrity of universities.”

But at least as threatening as the consequences of the ABOR's language is the rancor Horowitz's campaign is generating. Ruth Flower, the AAUP's public-policy and communications director, sees it as “an attempt to substitute an atmosphere of distrust for an atmosphere of trust between faculty and students.” Horowitz blandly refers to this aspect of the campaign as “raising the consciousness” on campus and in state legislatures as to the single-minded, radical indoctrination going on in countless college classrooms.

The often-incendiary speeches he gives for that purpose have riled up budding conservative activists on many campuses. To give them a voice, Horowitz has founded what one opponent calls a “gotcha club,” a CSPC subsidiary called Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), which claims chapters -- most of them consisting of “one or two or three members,” according to SAF field director Sara Dogan -- at 150 colleges. An SAF handbook explains how to publicize allegations of bias or indoctrination at schools, often through hyperbolic op-eds aimed at administrators. With legislation pending and a vicious campus squabble, local media invariably pick up the story.

The model to look at, Horowitz told the Prospect in between a press conference in Minnesota and a committee hearing in Ohio, is Colorado. If so, universities have ample reason to fear his campaign: In two short years, the cause of “academic freedom” has brought nothing but chaos to the state.

It began with a meeting of Horowitz, Colorado Governor Bill Owens, and Republican state legislators in June 2003. Horowitz returned in September and October to whip up support for the plan among students; by December, he had found enough true believers to stock a packed hearing held by Colorado Senate President John Andrews. The resulting bill passed through a contentious education-committee vote in February 2004, and sponsor Shawn Mitchell seemed to have the votes he needed for passage.

But the bill never became law. After opposing it at every stage, a chastised University of Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman and other university presidents cut a deal in which Mitchell would drop the bill, the presidents of Colorado's public universities would endorse and institute its principles, and the Colorado Legislature would keep an eye on the programs' progress. That deal encouraged conservatives to continue applying pressure: College Republicans kept collecting charges of bias, and Horowitz kept publishing them online. Suggesting that “some follow-up is timely as the new school year begins,” Andrews held another hearing on September 9, 2004, to air allegations against professors -- at least one of which was disproved when the professor, the subject of a complaint a year earlier and death threats since, produced a tape of the lecture in question.

Throughout the tempest, close media coverage has persisted. In the last four months of 2003 alone, before a bill had even been drafted, Horowitz was mentioned in 23 separate Denver Post articles. That constant buzz has framed every university-related occurrence, from the state's near-flatlining of its higher-education budget to the national hysteria over Ward Churchill's 3-year-old comparison of September 11 victims to Nazis. The ultimate scalp came from Hoffman's head; she resigned on March 7, four days after warning of a “new McCarthyism” in academia.

Horowitz hasn't succeeded everywhere. In places where his campaign has been co-opted or preempted, states have dodged these consequences. In Georgia, universities stayed out of the media war and refused to engage Horowitz. Unlike in Colorado, Horowitz didn't spend weeks soliciting student complaints, instead appearing before a state Senate committee himself -- where he “absolutely committed suicide,” according to Hugh Hudson, the AAUP's Georgia executive director. Listening to Horowitz rail against “Stalinist K-12 teachers” and other fantastical creations, Hudson says, legislators realized that “they weren't dealing with crazy faculty; they were dealing with a crazy man.”

As a result, the first Republican majority in the Georgia Senate in 140 years worked closely with academics to produce a bill without the ABOR's most objectionable provisions, such as the restrictive pluralism and a dictum on the “selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers programs and other student activities.” Since then, the one incident that SAF tried to drum into a scandal received not a single press mention.

Even in North Carolina, site of some of the most prominent academic-freedom tiffs since September 11, a prepared professorate succeeded in derailing Horowitz's campaign. When a local conservative higher-education think tank scheduled Horowitz to speak on October 16, 2004, Cat Warren, director of women's and gender studies at North Carolina State University, contacted the Faculty Senate to quickly draft its own reaffirmation of academic freedom. It quietly passed a resolution and determinedly ignored Horowitz's appearance, as did the local press. The move got the North Carolina schools exactly what Warren sought. “It was a show that nobody came to,” she said, “and that's the way we wanted it.”

These contrasting results are on the minds of the ABOR's opponents in Ohio, Horowitz's top target. Although the SAF “gotcha club” is operating at full strength, and although state Senator Larry Mumper is determinedly issuing outlandish statements in support of the bill (“If the system were fair,” Mumper told Time magazine, “Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity would be tenured professors somewhere.”), the universities' defenders are confident.

In Colorado, says Teresa Fedor, the ranking member of the Ohio Senate Higher Education Committee, “they debated the wrong thing. They focused on the reason why we don't want to do this.” Instead, at a hearing on March 8, she hammered Horowitz on his funding and the similarity of his Ohio campaign to his campaigns elsewhere. The AAUP's Flower has taken the same tack. “This is a large and growing conservative political strategy,” she says. “It has almost felt like it's not our place to say that, but we're the ones being attacked.”

Whether that strategy will stand up to a full-throttle ABOR campaign remains to be seen. The bill looks likely to go on the shelf for the summer as legislators gear up for a contentious budget battle, producing a delay that could kill the ABOR's momentum -- or could allow the snowballing that caused Colorado's avalanche.

Either way, Fedor says she's ready. “After 18 years of teaching,” the Toledo public-school teacher says, “it's easy to pick out a bully.”

Jeffrey Dubner is the Prospect's associate web editor.