FIRE's Letter to USC President John M. Palms
April 25, 2002
April 25, 2002
John M. Palms, President
University of South Carolina
206 Osborne Administration Building
Columbia, SC 29208
Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (803-777-1220)
Dear President Palms,
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, and conscience on America's college campuses. Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.
FIRE is profoundly concerned by the threat to freedom of both speech and conscience posed by the official "Guidelines for Classroom Discussion" for a seminar taught by Professor Lynn Weber, chair of the Women's Studies Program at the University of South Carolina. These "Guidelines" compel students to express viewpoints they might not believe and to make fundamental assumptions with which they might not agree, under the stated, explicit, and coercive threat of being graded poorly for honest intellectual dissent. Such an ideological "loyalty oath" should be anathema to any institution devoted to learning, because it replaces the process of intellectual discovery with the imposition of dogmatic political orthodoxy. Because this class is explicitly a "required seminar," its ideological requirements violate not only the guidelines on academic freedom of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and USC's own regulations, but also, indeed, the Constitution of the United States.
The web page of the Women's Studies Program states that "Women's Studies 797: Seminar in Women's Studies" is "required" for a certificate of graduate study in Women's Studies. On the first day of class, January 16, 2002, Professor Weber distributed the course syllabus, which states that classroom participation counts for twenty percent of a student's overall grade. Professor Weber also distributed on that same day a document entitled "Guidelines for Classroom Discussion," a copy of which is enclosed with this letter. The Guidelines mandate that students "acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist," and assume "that people‚Ä"both the people we study and the members of the class-always do the best they can." The Guidelines also stipulate that "we are all systematically taught misinformation about our own group and about members of other groups," that "this is true for members of privileged and oppressed groups," and that students must "agree to combat actively the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups."
While it is, of course, permissible for a professor to hold the political views espoused in the Guidelines, or even to advocate these arguments in teaching and scholarship, it is categorically different to require students to hold certain arguments as unquestionable truths in order to participate in a class without penalty (let alone in a required class). Indeed, it is unconscionable that a student's grade would be predicated on his or her participation in a class discussion that demands fealty to those arguments. In this required class, any dissenting students would be put in the intolerable position of having to profess beliefs they do not share or receive‚Ä"by virtue of honest intellectual dissent‚Ä"a lower grade. Professor Weber's Guidelines constitute a political litmus test. They require that students adopt her ideological assumptions in order to acquire a certificate of graduate study in this subject.
A public university, or, indeed, any university that honors academic freedom, may not stipulate a commitment to any ideology as a condition of participation in the classroom-let alone tell students what their beliefs must be in order to attain a degree in a given field. This is true no matter what the ideology in question. FIRE would oppose with equal fervor classroom guidelines that demanded commitment to Christianity or to atheism for a degree in theology; to the free market or to socialism for a degree in economics; to internationalism or to patriotism for a degree in political science. Classroom guidelines that mandate values and commitment to schools of thought create a loyalty oath that is injurious to intellectual freedom. A university in which students are not allowed to disagree with their professors on fundamental assumptions about reality is incapable of intellectual innovation, critical dialogue, meaningful discourse, or true scholarship. The sad legacy of mandatory allegiances to political ideologies darkened the academy during the heyday of McCarthyism. Let us not revive that legacy.
Mandating political beliefs is in stark opposition to the principles and statements of the AAUP. In its Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students (1967), the AAUP addressed the principle of academic freedom as it relates to students: "students should be encouraged to develop the capacity for critical judgment and to engage in a sustained and independent search for truth...[they] should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion." The Joint Statement also noted that "students should have protection through orderly procedures against prejudiced or capricious academic evaluation." In 2000, the AAUP reaffirmed the necessity of these fundamental rights in its Statement on Graduate Students: "Graduate programs in universities exist for the discovery and transmission of knowledge, the education of students, the training of future faculty, and the general well-being of society. Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment of these goals." Professor Weber's Guidelines clearly betray each of these statements on rights and freedoms.
Professor Weber's Guidelines also violate USC's own statement on Students Rights and Freedoms within the Academic Community. USC's statement replicates the AAUP's language quoted above: "The professor in the classroom and in conference should encourage free discussion, inquiry, and expression. Student performances should be evaluated solely on an academic basis, not [on the basis of] opinions or conduct in matters unrelated to academic standards....Students should be free to take reasoned exceptions to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion...Students should have protection through orderly procedures against prejudiced or capricious academic evaluation."
Rather than supporting the AAUP's noble principles or USC's contract with its students, Professor Weber's Guidelines forbid students from developing "critical judgment" and frustrate their "independent search for truth." Indeed, she promises to punish them for doing so. Her Guidelines do not allow students to take "reasoned exception" or to "reserve judgment"; rather, they require students to adopt her ideology wholesale and without dissent. Because students in this seminar are graded on how they participate in classroom discussions, they are not even afforded basic protection against "prejudiced or capricious academic evaluation"‚Ä"indeed, with the establishment of these Guidelines, Professor Weber pledges herself to an academic evaluation that is both strongly prejudiced and capricious.
Most importantly, mandated allegiances to political ideologies at public universities violate the United States Constitution. One great and beautiful truth lies at the heart of the cases that outlaw such political litmus tests and state-required "values": the state may not and should not be the sole arbiter of truth. The Supreme Court recognized this principle in its opinion in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), a case decided in the darkest days of World War II. Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the Court, declared, "Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. 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 therein [emphasis added]."
We are categorically committed to using all of our media and legal resources to oppose this ideological litmus test and to see this process to a just and moral conclusion. Now that you are aware of the situation, we trust that you will meet your moral and legal obligations to restore freedom of speech and freedom of conscience at your institution. Please spare USC the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights, by which it is legally and morally bound. We urge you to correct this injustice, showing the world that, at your university, free speech and freedom of conscience are considered essential to the search for truth.
I look forward to your response.
Alan Charles Kors
Joan H. Stewart, Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Lynn Weber, Chair, Women's Studies Program
Governor James H. Hodges, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Mack I. Whittle, Jr., Chairman, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Herbert C. Adams, Vice Chairman, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Arthur S. Bahnmuller, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
James Bradley, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Alex English, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
A.C. Fennell, III, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
C. Edward Floyd, M.D., University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Samuel R. Foster, II, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Helen C. Harvey, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
William C. Hubbard, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Toney J. Lister, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Miles Loadholt, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Robert N. McLellan, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
J. DuPre Miller, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Darla D. Moore, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Michael J. Mungo, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
M. Wayne Staton, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Inez M. Tenenbaum, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
John C. von Lehe Jr., University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Othniel H. Wienges, Jr., University of South Carolina Board of Trustees
Thomas L. Stepp, University of South Carolina Board of Trustees