Inside Higher Ed: WTF, Arizona

By Mitch Smith, for Inside Higher Ed

February 13, 2012

In with the conservatives, out with the pottymouths.

Arizona legislators are considering one bill that would punish college instructors whose speech or actions would violate broadcast obscenity standards and another bill designed to protect conservative faculty members from discrimination in getting hired or tenured.

Many in the higher education community aren’t amused.

A University of Arizona physiology professor worries that the obscenity proposal, dubbed the G-rated bill, might affect his ability to discuss sexually transmitted diseases in class. The American Association of University Professors says that both bills would be harmful to higher education.

The “G-rated” bill would require colleges to suspend or fire an instructor who “engages in speech or conduct that would violate the standards adopted by the Federal Communications Commission concerning obscenity, indecency and profanity if that speech were broadcast on television or radio”. The first four-letter word would bring at least a one-week suspension without pay. By the third violation, the instructor would have to be terminated.

Introduced by Republican senator Lori Klein, the restrictions apply to any “person who provides classroom instruction” in public institutions from preschools to community colleges and four-year universities. And in its current phrasing, Klein’s bill doesn’t seem to differentiate between obscenity in the classroom and actions elsewhere.

Multiple attempts to reach Klein on Thursday were unsuccessful, but her bill seems to have momentum. The measure has four Republican co-sponsors, including the Senate’s majority leader, and is now in committee.

But John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the AAUP, said the bill is “probably unconstitutional” and “seems fundamentally inconsistent with the whole idea of higher education and academic freedom”.

Timothy Secomb, a University of Arizona physiology professor, wonders what might happen when a medical class discusses the reproductive system or sexual behaviour. Those lessons often involve graphic images and discussions that probably wouldn’t be allowed during primetime on CBS, but that Secomb argues are essential in training students. “If I was talking about the spread of sexually transmitted disease,” he said, “then one has to talk about the ways people have sex. There’s no way around that. Basically these rules would interfere with normal and necessary education of our students.” Secomb also worries what the bill would mean for classes reading literature that might contain vulgarities or racial slurs.

In Arizona’s other chamber, legislators are debating a bill that would ban discrimination based on a public college faculty member’s religious or political beliefs. A committee passed the bill on Wednesday by a 7-1 vote with one abstention, with a bipartisan group of seven representatives voting in favour.

Tom Forese, the Republican from Gilbert who introduced the measure, told the Verde News that the bill is designed to protect conservatives who feel that they are discriminated against in the hiring and tenuring process. Forese wasn’t aware of anyone in Arizona willing to publicly claim that type of discrimination, telling the Verde News that they fear retribution and must “pretend to think or believe in a different way in order to fit in”.

His bill mandates that hiring and tenuring decisions be “on the basis of that faculty member’s competence and appropriate knowledge in the field” and asks colleges to assemble their staff “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” in the humanities, social sciences and arts. The protections apply for instructors of all political and religious persuasions.

But while he agrees that conservatives and Christians shouldn’t be discriminated against, Curtis of the AAUP said that the bill would add an unnecessary layer of government interference designed to right a non-existent wrong.

“There’s no problem,” he said, “so there’s no need to legislate a solution.”

He points to an article by a conservative professor in the AAUP’s publication, Academe, that suggests that widespread paranoia about political discrimination is unfounded.

Secomb, the physiology professor, also opposes the bill. He said that religious and political discrimination is a “non-issue” in his experience, and that asking for a variety of perspectives among faculty members could be dangerous.

“In many fields,” he said, “there may be a consensus that some methodologies and perspectives are unacceptable.”

And almost paradoxically, Curtis said, Forese’s bill would make political and religious views a hiring issue by mandating the “plurality” of perspectives. Attempts to contact Forese by phone and email on Thursday failed.

But a lawyer at the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian group working to defend religious freedom in colleges, said that Forese’s bill is necessary and that discrimination against Christian academics is real.

“This type of legislation is sorely needed,” said ADF senior counsel David Cortman in an email message to Inside Higher Ed. “When you compare the lopsided number of liberal professors to those who are conservative, there certainly is a crisis of one-sided views being taught to the next generation. Public universities are no longer the marketplace of ideas, but rather have become storefronts of indoctrination.”

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