Higher Education Needs Financial Support, Not Overzealous Classroom Regulation

By Thomas V. Chema

The media has focused recently on high-profile professors demanding their First Amendment rights for what they are preaching inside and outside the classroom.  Meanwhile, at Harvard, professors have been trying desperately to force out their president for supposed political incorrectness.

Is this tyranny on the left as the right proclaims?

At first blush, it does seem so, particularly with the University of Colorado ethnic studies professor who claims to be an American Indian as he goes about unapologetically insisting that the victims of the World Trade Center on 9/11 were "little Eichmanns" doing the business of the evil capitalist system that, in his twisted mind, subjugates the Third World.  Yet, the more the conservatives try to knock him from his perch, the more his defenders – radical students, assorted revolutionaries, and their ACLU supporters – rush to his defense.

At the same time, the Harvard president draws a no-confidence vote from his faculty because he questions what he surmises might be intrinsic differences between men and women relating to math and science.

Why are not the same defenders of Professor Ward Churchill's First Amendment rights defending President Lawrence Summers' First Amendment rights?

History shows that for years faculties from Berkeley to Boulder to Bowden have included individuals who may be considered radicals, especially in the liberal arts.   It also shows that their teaching contributes to expanding the minds of students while preparing them for post-graduate challenges.

In truth, while their instruction may endure, the impact of their philosophy generally does not.  Most of the graduates from these "radicalized" institutions do not wind up lifelong extremists.

Sure, students are influenced by radical ideas. Who in the full bloom of know-it-all youth is not hell-bent on saving the world and embarrassing one's parents?  But many of those same students go on to become diaper-changing, mortgage-paying, parent-loving, career-driven, church-going, calorie-counting consultants, lawyers, doctors, journalists, entrepreneurs, executives, and Republican and Democratic Party benefactors.

I went to college in an era that does not seem too long ago.  I had all kinds of professors.  Plenty were on the left, even by today's standards.  They made an impression on me, not so much for what they espoused, but for how they contributed to my critical thinking.  Moreover, I soon realized – as probably 99 per cent of college graduates do -- that real life does not work the same way as campus life.  Hence, to support a family and pursue a career, I crossed the capitalist threshold of law, business, and urban planning. All of those career choices helped to prepare me for me current role as a college president.

Did I lose my ideals along the way?  Or my independence of thought?   No way!  But I also realized that pursuing a conventional career and doing good are not incompatible.  And I used my education so I could contribute to society in various ways.  So, to any parents who feel that far-left faculties have a lasting ideological impact, I agree.  They do.  But it is, for the most part, on themselves and their hard-core faithful.

Nonetheless, a growing overreaction to tenured "extremist" professors has led some legislators in Ohio to propose the innocently sounding Academic Bill of Rights for state-supported universities.  It is aimed a professors who are "persistently introducing controversial matters into the classroom that has no relation to their subject of study."  If passed, it would set up a kind of intramural university grievance process and create a kind of bureaucratic Department of Truth. That is throwing out the baby with the bath water.

One can make a good case for the need or more classroom balance, particularly where teaching can sometimes degenerate into lies and hate speech, but universities educate best when faculties and administrators themselves put principles before personalities. If they work toward more diverse faculties and seek out the best person for the professorship based on academic credentials, not dogma, it will be a good start.

The open exchange of ideas is a major reason students seek a college education. Thus, imposing constraints on free expression could one day blow back on conservative academics.  Where do you start regulating and where do you stop?

The real crisis today in higher education is not so much ideological; it is financial.  Especially in Ohio. We need tax reform to spur businesses to locate and thrive in Ohio.  At the same time, we also need the General Assembly to apportion a greater share of resources to higher education.  Yet, just the opposite is happening.   In fact, the Beacon Journal recently editorialized that the "governor's spending plan continues an unfortunate pattern of inadequate support for higher education at the expense of the state economy."

Ohio's per capita income is some $1,700 less than the national average.  And Ohio is 40th in the United States in the number of adults with bachelor's degrees.  College graduates earn about $1 million more in their lifetimes than those without a degree.  It does not take a rocket scientist to ascertain how the bottom line for all of us is impacted by higher education. Without a college-educated workforce, even the jobs of the semi-educated are in jeopardy.

Ohio's elected officials and the rank-and-file voters need a seismic shift in thinking about government spending priorities.  We may want more philosophical balance in the university classroom but first we must keep those classrooms open and active.

▲  Return to Top