Supporters and opponents of efforts to rid college classrooms of alleged political bias offered conflicting testimony on Wednesday as Pennsylvania lawmakers gathered here for the first of four hearings to investigate accusations that the state's public colleges are rife with liberal indoctrination.
The Select Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives gathered in a ballroom on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh to hear the testimony. The House voted in July to establish the panel after some students claimed that their professors had graded them unfairly because of their political views. The students also said the professors had used class time to talk about their own political opinions.
The resolution to establish the panel, HR 177, states that students and faculty members "should be protected from the imposition of ideological orthodoxy," and that students should be "graded based on academic merit, without regard for ideological views." Rep. Gibson Armstrong, a Republican from Lancaster, Pa., introduced the resolution.
David A. French, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, sat with the committee members during the hearing, since he is serving as a legal adviser to the panel on First Amendment rights. Rep. Thomas L. Stevenson, the committee's co-chairman, said the committee would report its findings to the House in November 2006.
The hearings come at a time when Republican lawmakers in several state legislatures have introduced a measure, known as the academic bill of rights, that they say will make college campuses more intellectually diverse. The measure has been promoted in a national campaign by David Horowitz, a California-based activist, but no legislature has passed Mr. Horowitz's bill so far. Critics, including many prominent professors and faculty groups, say the bill would give government officials control over academic matters that should be left to faculty members' professional judgment.
The first person to testify here was Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group. He said that in the humanities and social sciences, professors view themselves as political activists rather than educators, to the detriment of intellectual rigor.
Mr. Balch outlined reforms legislatures should expect universities to undertake, although without providing specifics. For instance, he said universities should make the same commitment to a diversity of political viewpoints as they have made to ethnic and gender diversity. He also called on the legislatures to intervene if universities do not make "a good-faith effort" to fix the problems he described.
Professors who appeared before the committee decried such intervention. The academic bill of rights "ironically infringes academic freedom in the very act of purporting to protect it," said Joan Wallach Scott, a professor of social sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., who is also a former chairwoman of the American Association of University Professors' Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
Robert Moore, an assistant professor of sociology at St. Joseph's University, in Philadelphia, called the bill redundant since universities already have grievance procedures that students can use to file complaints against professors. Mr. Moore is a former member of the AAUP Committee on Governance.
Earlier, two Democratic members of the panel said they thought its creation and the hearings were a waste of time. Rep. Dan B. Frankel, of Pittsburgh, said he worried that if Pennsylvania took the lead on something like the academic bill of rights, the reputation of the state's universities would be damaged.
Rep. Dan A. Surra, who represents Elk County and part of Clearfield County, called HR 177 "a resolution in search of a problem" and said that he was opposed to the formation of the committee. It's "a colossal waste of time and taxpayers' money to go around the state and do this," he said.
The hearings continue today.