Letter to Bucks County Community College
February 22, 2001
Dr. James J. Linksz
Bucks County Community College
Newtown, PA 18940-9677
Dear President Linksz,
As you can see from the list of our Directors and Board of Advisors, FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, due process, the rights of conscience, and â€" in the case of Bucks County Community College â€" academic freedom on America's college campuses. Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a fuller sense of our identity and activities.
I wish to express our profound, grave, and determined concern about the threat to academic and healthy intellectual freedom posed by Question Two of the Qualifications Statement of BCCC's Application for Employment: "Please provide a brief statement of your commitment to diversity and how this commitment is demonstrated in your work." Even leaving aside issues of vagueness and overbreadth, it is not the business of a public university to inquire into an applicant's private views ofâ€"let alone an applicant's "commitment" toâ€"matters of politics, race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, or, indeed, of any other category that you include in "diversity." This is a politically correct equivalent of a loyalty oath, as objectionable as a 1950s question asking for a statement from an applicant about his or her "commitment to patriotism" or "commitment to Americanism." Such inquisitorial abuse of authority was beyond the pale then; it is beyond the pale now.
We assume the good faith and concern for academic freedom (and, given BCCC's status as a public university, constitutional principles) of all parties to this case. In that spirit, we ask you to listen with an open mind and collegially to the argument against such a demand upon instructors and staff. FIRE would defend with equal fervor the rights of faculty at BCCC and elsewhere to be protected from inquisitions into their love of country or celebration of Americanism if the College, in a change of ideological climate, sought to elicit such statements as a factor in determining employment qualifications. You have a right to evaluate a candidate with broad discretion, and to consider any evidence of violation of statutory and constitutional obligations toward legal equality in someone's past performance. Your current inquisition into "commitment to diversity," however, imposes one fashionable intellectual agenda, among many, reflecting a new orthodoxy regnant on many campuses. This truly does violate your constitutional obligation to content neutrality, and intrudes upon the private thought and conscience of free individuals in a free society. It truly is a "loyalty oath" as inimical to academic and intellectual freedom as any that arose during the sad days of McCarthyism.
It is a human failing common to us all that we rarely see our own abuses of power, and no one, right, left, or center, is innocent of that failing. Once these abuses are called to consciousness, however, it becomes a moral imperative to restrain ourselves and to grant to others the academic freedom that we would demand for ourselves. The sad days of "loyalty oaths" to political ideologies already once darkened the academy. Let us not revive them ourselves or tolerate their resurrection by others.
We ask you to consider very carefully if you believe that your investigation of private belief and conscience would pass moral muster, AAUP guidelines, and, in BCCC's case, constitutional review. The AAUP guidelines of 1915 state the matter quite clearly: "To the degree that professional scholars, in the formation or promulgation of their opinions, are, or by the character of their tenure appear to be, subject to any motive other than their own scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow-experts, to that degree the university teaching profession is corrupted; its proper influence upon public opinion is diminished and vitiated; and society at large fails to get from its scholars in an unadulterated form the peculiar and necessary service which it is the office of the professional scholar to furnish (italics added)." Is there any part of that statement with which BCCC officially disagrees?
Further, as the AAUP noted at this birth of academic freedom: "It is not only the character of the instruction but also the character of the instructor that counts; and if the student has reason to believe that the instructor is not true to himself, the virtue of the instruction as an educative force is incalculably diminished. There must be in the mind of the teacher no mental reservation. He must give the student the best of what he has and what he is." Must all potential instructors at BCCC be made an exception to that ringing declaration of the meaning and value of true academic freedom? In its groundbreaking statement on academic freedom of 1940, the AAUP put it this way: "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject." Please pause and think about this, substituting, in your minds, any agenda other than the "diversity" agenda that BCCC currently favors.
Further, you are a public institution, bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court concerning academic freedom at public colleges and universities. FIRE would remind you of the Court's decision, in Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York (1967), that "our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, a transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned." This being the case, the Court opined, the First Amendment "does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom . . . [which is] peculiarly the marketplace of ideas." As the Court had ruled in the landmark case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943): "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith [in it]." The Court concluded that "the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution" was precisely to protect "from all official control" the domain that was "the sphere of intellect and spirit." Your inquisition into private views of "diversity" would force potential hires to confess both by word and by act their faith in the opinion that "diversity" was essential to their teaching and academic life. Does BCCC truly wish to violate academic, moral, and constitutional prohibitions against such coercions?
FIRE will see this issue through to the end, whatever the effort that this requires. It is our profoundest hope that your inquisition into private belief and your loyalty oath, with their scandalous coercion of both conscience and mind, will disappear from BCCC's application and hiring procedures. The presumed goals of that questionnaire can be rightly pursued in two appropriate ways. First, the College can and should enforce the antidiscrimination statutes and rulings that govern its behavior. Second, consideration of issues of diversity can and should be pursued in the infinitely more appropriate domain of collegial debate, persuasion, and the voluntary choices of free minds in the free universities of a free society. We hope that BCCC will reconsider its illiberal, immoral, and, we believe, unconstitutional inquisition into private belief and commitment, restoring academic freedom to its faculty and staff, current and potential. Academic life does not create ideological fiefdoms from which to coerce dissidents or skeptics.
We are ready to discuss this issue with you at any length that you desire, and we hope that this disturbing matter can be resolved quietly and by common, collegial principles. If that resolution requires full public exposure and litigation, however, FIRE will assist interested parties in their pursuit of academic freedom, respect for conscience, and the rights of privacy, political pluralism, and reasoned dissent at BCCC.
Looking forward to hearing from you, I am,
Thor L. Halvorssen
Dr. Annette L. Conn,
Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs
Dr. Larry M. Newman, Chairman, Board of Trustees