Should Your Political Beliefs Be Protected by College Discrimination Policies?

With another college semester well underway, college students across the country have already forgotten about the syllabi handed out the first week of class. Most include a nondiscrimination clause, letting the students know the protected classes and aspects of their identity.

The list is familiar, and often includes race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, creed, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran’s status. But at the University of Colorado, there is a peculiar addition: political affiliation and philosophy.

This raises a lot of questions. The ones I want to try to answer here are:

  1. How did it get there?
  2. Who is it meant to protect?
  3. Will it do more harm than good?

Short answers first.

  1. It’s the result of conservative efforts to insert themselves and anti-science views that align with their ideology into the academy, while simultaneously silencing liberal voices. In this specific case it’s the product of long-term efforts from two conservative regents at CU.
  2. Conservatives. In particular those whose beliefs are anti-science or rooted in bigotry, i.e. climate deniers and those opposed to same sex marriage.
  3. Probably.

Now, let’s talk about where I came up with those answers.

In 2010 CU’s Board of Regents, including conservatives Sue Sharkey and Jim Geddes, adopted 12 Guiding Principles. Among them, was the seemingly innocuous Principle Six:

“Promote faculty, student, and staff diversity to ensure the rich interchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth and learning, including diversity of political, geographic, cultural, intellectual, and philosophical perspectives.”

The inclusions of political and intellectual diversity are both tactics straight from the playbook of conservative polemicist and longtime crusader against liberal bias in higher education, David Horowitz. In 2003 Horowitz, according to his website, “launched an academic freedom campaign to return the American university to traditional principles of open inquiry and to halt indoctrination in the classroom. To further these goals he devised an Academic Bill of Rights to protect students from abusive professors” and “founded Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), which now has chapters on 200 college campuses. Asserting that, ‘You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story,’ Horowitz called for inquiries into political bias in the hiring of faculty and the appointment of commencement speakers.”

Geddes and Sharkey used remarkably similar language as Horowitz’ groups when drafting their proposals that ultimately led to CU’s inclusion of political philosophy and affiliation as protected classes. They also pushed for and implemented a Social Climate Survey in 2010 of CU staff, faculty, professors, and students, another of Horowitz’ recommendations.

When asked about any affiliation with Horowitz, both Sharkey and Geddes denied any direct influence. However, after the survey and adoption of changes to CU’s nondiscrimination policy, Horowitz praised Geddes and Sharkey while awarding Sharkey the “Annie Taylor Award for Courage” in 2013. If nothing else, this makes it clear their goals were one and the same.

Question 2: Who is meant to protect?

If the answer isn’t clear enough from the aforementioned efforts of conservative regents and parallels to Horowitz, Geddes elucidated his motives in a phone interview I conducted with him last February.

Talking about whether or not he was for the creation of a new degree program in Environmental Studies, Geddes said he was only in favor if the faculty was intellectually diverse—which sounds agreeable enough. But what he seems to mean by that has little to do with intellectual diversity in an academic sense, and everything to do with injecting manufactured partisan controversies into the academy to protect anti-science beliefs.

At one point he rhetorically asks, “How are you gonna graduate experts in the environment if all they’ve heard is one side of the story?”

This reductionist and bifurcated view is telling. Whether intentionally or not, he sees the debate over climate change as a partisan one. On one side there are those who believe climate change is the result of carbon emissions and driven by humans, and on the other are those who disagree. This is a real political controversy, but not a scientific one. Climate scientists came to a consensus on this point a long time ago—apparently even the ones who worked for Big Oil.

In the interview, which was over an hour long, Geddes makes his motivations clear. Geddes sees most professors as liberal ideologues, committed to and promoting partisan views in their research and to their students. This is a harmful mischaracterization of what happens in universities, but an increasingly common one. It’s rooted in anti-intellectual thought, and coalesced through persistent messaging in conservative media and other conservative cultural apparatuses that denounce knowledge production in universities and so-called liberal media.

While the nondiscrimination policy at CU says it protects political philosophy and affiliation, it’s clear it’s meant to protect conservative political philosophies and affiliations.

Question 3: Will it do more harm than good?

Of all my answers, this one requires the biggest value judgment, and is the most difficult to demonstrate a “correct” answer as it requires venturing into hypotheticals. I’ll try to keep my argument simple. Political philosophy and affiliation are fluid, ideologically informed aspects of our identities. In spite of the myriad of new evidence in political neuroscience that indicates differences between liberals and conservatives at a neurological level, our political identities are certainly not inherent or predetermined.

The didactic process that takes place in universities should challenge students to rigorously inspect their beliefs—perhaps especially their political beliefs—while providing them with the tools to further connect their beliefs to historical context, observable realities, empirical data, and social, critical, and cultural theory from the best thinkers of today and yesterday.

This is a goal universities rarely live up to, and the reasons for that go far beyond a problematic addition to CU’s nondiscrimination policy. My point isn’t to ignore the myriad of symptoms of decline found at universities by pointing out this one—it is to simply add this as another symptom on a long list, in an increasingly bleak diagnosis.

Fostering an environment that does live up to the aforementioned didactic process is more likely to happen when professors are able to adopt a fearless pedagogical style. This is one justification underlying academic freedom, a longstanding tradition in the academy that seems to be quickly fading away.

A milieu that places political philosophy and affiliation as protected classes alongside race and ethnicity could potentially accelerate its degradation. This is particularly true when a substantial portion of one of two dominant political parties in the nation routinely adheres to anti-science views.

One outlet conservatives have historically used to legitimate their anti-science views using pseudo-science is think tanks. The modern iteration of these institutions came to prominence in the 1970s, and has since been an arena dominated by wealthy conservative interests.

Upset with the exclusion of anti-science views, and inconsistent support of Big Business in universities, wealthy conservatives needed their own knowledge factories, and subsequently invested heavily in think tanks. Often the research, if you want to call it that, coming from these conservative institutions is couched in racist language, caters to preexisting racial biases held by resentful whites after successes of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and is often centered on demonizing the poor. This has created what Henry Giroux calls a culture of economic Darwinism—a classist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, and misogynistic culture, structured around the pursuit and accumulation of obscene wealth.

Decades later, a whole generation of anti-intellectuals have been raised on this neoliberal ideology, many who are now entering universities. Will the university be a location that’s able to offer a challenge to this toxic ideology, or will it provide a rubber stamp, or at least silent consent, to harmful beliefs detached from reality?

At CU, it seems this nondiscrimination policy is an effort to nudge professors toward a pedagogy that caters to the latter. The problem with catering or teaching to manufactured controversies, rather than scientific controversies, can be seen with a glance at mainstream media. Too often journalists and editors refuse to take a stance on matters of settled science, deferring instead to manufactured controversies that require an adherence to false equivalencies that are damaging to the public’s understanding of important scientific issues.

Posing climate change as something that has two sides to the story is not honest reporting. When media do this it legitimates pseudo-science, and degrades our ability to act to address very real and very serious problems through democratic mechanisms that require approval from voters.

This false-equivalency politicizes an important scientific debate. It’s a manufactured controversy created in think tanks, funded by Big Oil, and meant to forestall changes and regulation deemed bad for the industry. It’s a big enough problem when corporate media fall victim to legitimating these manufactured controversies—universities should take absolutely no part.

It’s hard to say what impacts the change to CU’s nondiscrimination policy will actually have. It’s only recently gone into effect. The change came without much scrutiny from professors, students or faculty, and stirred little outcry from these populations. Perhaps it’s no big deal. Maybe this is the last we’ll hear of it. But let me pose an alternative possibility.

Imagine a student argues with a professor in front of the class about climate change using an alternative “theory” that’s been roundly debunked by the scientific community. The professor shuts the conversation down quickly, pointing out the information isn’t credible, and states that the class won’t be debating whether or not climate change is caused by humans. That student then files a complaint that his political philosophy, which includes a deep-seated belief that climate change isn’t caused by humans, is being discriminated against.

In a sense, under CU’s nondiscrimination policy, the student might be right. To discriminate simply means to leave something out. This professor is clearly stating that she's be leaving this perspective, widely held by conservatives, out of her class discussion.

In another example, what if that same professor, discussing climate change, makes a joke about climate deniers; is that equivalent to a professor making a racist joke? A student could now make that case, and CU’s policy appears to back him up.

Whether or not the arbitration process that would follow either of the above incidents finds the professor violated CU nondiscrimination policy is less relevant to me than the potential self-censorship that is likely to happen in classrooms to avoid needing to deal with the process in the first place.

Of course, this is all hypothetical, but it’s not far-fetched.

At Marquette University, an undergraduate student surreptitiously recorded a conversation with his graduate student instructor in an effort to show she was discriminating against his political beliefs. This came after the student felt his stance against same-sex marriage was given too little attention during a class discussion. The undergraduate student’s advisor, Professor John McAdams, used the ill-gotten recording to launch a broadside against the graduate student teacher on his blog. This resulted in her receiving death threats, a host of misogynistic and homophobic hate mail and emails and ultimately relocating from Marquette to CU.

Ironic, right? It doesn’t require a wild imagination to picture a similar situation unfolding at CU, now backed by the nondiscrimination policy that is essentially the law of the university land.

Incidents like this, and even the possibility of them, could easily have a chilling effect on academic freedom as professors adapt their pedagogical styles and censor themselves when discussing subjects involving manufactured controversies.

Conservative efforts to tear down higher education are well documented, widespread, multifaceted, and often successful. While this change at CU might seem innocuous and small, it’s yet another aspect of this attack, and a symptom of what’s looking more and more like a terminal diagnosis for anything warranting the name higher education in the United States. The least we could do is have a real conversation about it.  

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