Alumni launch PC fightback

April 21, 1995

Students facing allegations of breaking campus codes on political correctness in the United States will receive a helping hand from an organisation designed to "preserve free speech and free thought" at universities and colleges.

The newly-formed National Alumni Forum in Washington has Republicans and Democrats on its council and is chaired by Lynne Cheney, who ran the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Bush and Reagan presidencies.

"The main threat to academic freedom today is from political intolerance on campus," said Mrs Cheney, who is a fellow at the American Entreprise Institute. "Alumni and trustees must make sure our colleges and universities remain forums for open debate. Alumni want to support their colleagues, but they are often shut out of the discussion."

According to forum president Jerry Martin, more than 300 public colleges and universities have speech codes which threaten academic freedom. He was referring to codes giving punishments for students who break rules on how they should behave.

The case of the University of Pennsylvania student tried by a university disciplinary board for yelling "water buffalo" at a group of black women is not unique, he says. More than 100 cases of political intimidation have been identified in seven years.

The group plans to devote itself to two tasks initially, according to Dr Martin, a former NEH official and philosophy professor. It will be publishing a handbook on the "dos and don'ts" of restricted donations following the Bass case at Yale where a large grant for the teaching of Western civilisation was returned when the philanthropist said he wanted to approve teaching staff.

"We will look at how donors can give money to higher education in a way that will improve the quality of education and how they can ensure that the colleges live up to an agreement," said Dr Martin.

Second, the forum will monitor academic governance. Alumni and trustees should be more actively engaged in talking about academic issues, said Dr Martin. Trustees are responsible for quality, and alumni have a role in choosing trustees, so he believes both should be involved in any debate about the quality of higher education.

They might usefully ask questions about who is doing the teaching in their college and how much teaching of undergraduates is done by professors or graduate students.

Dr Martin is concerned about a recent decision by Dartmouth College to limit alumni voting on trustees and said he would raise the issue at every opportunity. His organisation plans to set up college alumni networks and regional forums, as well as run a newsletter and an electronic network.

There was a pressing need for a national alumni organisation, he said, given the severe financial pressures faced by higher education, the loss of public confidence in the sector, and the fact that alumni are the largest source of private support -- giving $2.9 billion last year.

At 78 colleges in the past seven years students angry about alleged racism had removed or destoyed copies of campus newspapers but received no punishment. When this happened at the University of Pennsylvania, the only person to be punished was the guard who apprehended the students. He was suspended and forced to undergo sensitivity training. The students who had destroyed the newspapers were let off with a reprimand.

At Duke University students who destroyed campus newspapers were found guilty by a disciplinary panel. But a higher panel let them off.

A lot of protests were on racial issues, which was why the administrators funked it, said Dr Martin. "The responsibility of faculty administrators is to teach students something about how you conduct disagreements in a free society," he added. "You can protest but you don't destroy."

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