Inside Higher Ed reports that the board of the College of DuPage, a community college in the Chicago area, has adopted a policy statement based upon the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR). Some professors, together with the local faculty union, are vehemently protesting passages in this statement such as “Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Courses will not be used for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or anti-religious indoctrination.”
Notwithstanding the very deliberate qualification “significant scholarly opinion,” the policy’s critics have asserted – as have detractors of ABOR more generally – that this kind of language will require that biology teachers give equal time to various forms of creationism. Quoted in the Insider Higher Ed article, AAUP national president Cary Nelson carries this rather lame argument a surprising step further. According to him, “It cannot be considered ideological indoctrination to expect that students master the theory of evolution or the idea that gender’s meanings are socially constructed.”
Assuming Nelson means what he seems to here – in a context in which the question at issue is whether students should be exposed to alternate views – his pronouncement is startling. Is he really equating the very contestable notion that “gender’s meanings are socially constructed” with the theory of evolution? Is he really suggesting that just as it’s not indoctrination to teach the truth of the latter, it’s also not indoctrination to teach the truth of the former? If that’s indeed what Nelson is asserting, then the president of the AAUP has provided us with a most compelling illustration of why open campus climates must be more than just a faculty concern. Nelson has blithely turned an opinion, at best merely fashionable within his set, into a scientifically validated, fully authoritative belief. (A maneuver all the more ironic in view of the tension – apparently missed by Nelson – between the theory of evolution, in which sex differences and sexual selection play enormous roles in shaping behavior, and the “idea that gender’s meanings are socially constructed.” Parochialism, even among our leading intellectual lights, can be quite blinding.)
Human nature, so evolution tells us, is human nature whether encountered in homo academicus, or homo six-packticus, and with humans absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Hermetically sealed from outside oversight, professors, as quickly as any, can slip smugly down the sinister slope, turning their prejudices into academic prescription. This is no invented intellectual malady. It can be found among community college faculty as well as within the AAUP.
The DuPage board isn’t, on any evidence thus far adduced, trying to do its professors’ jobs. By establishing some reasonable ground rules it is merely letting the faculty know that it intends to do its own, creating a potential check against abuse of professorial prerogative. Let’s hope the new policy stays in place. Once the panic has passed, DuPage's faculty will be the better for it.