Bill could crimp course contents

Rachel Abbey

The class begins with an open discussion of current events. Students in this Argumentative Prose course have the opportunity to voice their opinions on any subject introduced, and the professor, Matthew Shank, said he tries to keep his own opinion out. The best discussions are the ones where both sides are heard and discussed, he said.

Tuesday’s discussion addressed the Ohio State Senate Bill 24, concerning issues such as discrimination and controversial subject matter in classrooms.

“That bill, if it would ever pass, would severely crimp the course,” Shank said.

He is not alone in his concern. The bill’s possible effect on academic freedom has caused controversy on universities.

“I believe that universities are an oasis of intellectual freedom,” Provost Paul Gaston said, “and that our defense of that freedom is critical to all of society. I believe that attempt to regulate or limit that freedom deserves our spirited opposition.”

The Faculty Senate unanimously approved a resolution to oppose the bill, a move supported by the American Association of University Professors, Kent State chapter, said AAUP President Cheryl Casper.

“The AAUP has done groundbreaking work nationwide for academic freedom,” Casper said, “and this bill would twist the meaning of academic freedom.”

The vague language of the bill leaves much open to interpretation, said E. Thomas Dowd, professor and Faculty Senate chair, because it does not clarify what it would restrict or consider to be controversial matter.

If the bill restricts the intellectual freedom of faculty, it will do the same for students, Dowd said.

“It has a kind of chilling affect on the free expression of ideas,” he said.

Keeping an open mind to differing points of view is an important part of education, senior math and philosophy major Marissa Walter said. Sometimes, a student may be offended, but that is simply a part of the learning process.

“Subject matter should be left to professors,” Walter said.

For example, Walter said, some students find evolution to be a controversial subject, but it is a valuable part of biology course work.

Not all students are against the bill. Senior integrated life sciences major Danny Lababidi it could have positive effects for students’ rights. While he said he has not seen students discriminated against in his classes, he can see how it could happen. This type of bill would protect unpopular viewpoints and would be easier to enforce than a university policy, though the university currently has a policy addressing these issues.

“I can see the basic point,” Shank said, but university policies are more effective than a statewide movement.

Not only has Kent State’s faculty opposed the bill, Dowd said, but other universities in the state have also been publicly opposing it.

A nationwide student movement, known as Students for Academic Freedom, encourages state and national legislation to create academic bills of rights for higher education and to tracks the bills’ progress. According to the group’s mission statement, the main goals of Students for Academic Freedom are to promote intellectual diversity, to defend students’ rights against discrimination, to promote fairness in student affairs and to secure the “Academic Bill of Rights” as official university policy.

This movement has been compared to McCarthyism of an earlier era, Casper said, suppressing diversity rather than fostering it.

“It’s somewhat insulting to students to suggest they’re not capable of listening to different positions and making judgments,” Casper said.

Contact academics reporter Rachel Abbey at [email protected].