Republicans get their claws into curriculum

June 29, 2001

Core curriculums in the United States are being pushed by conservative advocacy groups that have won places on the once-docile boards that govern universities.

At a meeting in Albany, New York, presidents from the campuses of the State University of New York were given a proposal for a core curriculum requiring classes heavy on US history and traditional western thought.

One of its principal architects is Candace de Russy, who was appointed to the board of trustees by Republican New York governor George Pataki.

Too many boards of trustees, Ms de Russy said, "have ceded their roles as final guarantors of institutional integrity".

Intervention by trustees, she said, represented "a reclamation of normal oversight... Trustees have ceded too much lawful and necessary oversight to presidents and (faculty) councils".

The State University of New York has become a battleground for liberals and conservatives. Thirteen months after Mr Pataki took office, his largely conservative appointees comprised a majority. They drove out the chancellor and pushed for reducing public subsidies, privatising graduate schools and eliminating courses in English as a second language.

When the core curriculum was imposed, faculty responded with a declaration of no confidence in the trustees. The board was "allowing ideological views to shape academic decisions", it said.

Similar core curriculums have been proposed in Virginia and in Pennsylvania. Florida has handed over control of public universities to individual boards appointed by Republican governor Jeb Bush, whose commissioner of education has called academic freedom "the final refuge in which professors hide when confronted with the absurdity... of their decisions".

Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani has all but taken over the City University of New York. He appointed conservative trustees who backed his plan for raising admissions standards and ending remedial programmes for underprepared students.

The Association of Governing Boards adopted a report in April that said:

"External pressures have led some trustees and political leaders to abandon long-accepted principles of citizen trusteeship."

Richard Novak, director of the governing boards' association, The Center for Public Higher Education Trusteeship, said: "There have been reports of the greater politicisation of board members. Some of the stuff is pretty egregious in some places."

Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, said that by politicising universities, the Republicans had guaranteed "that when the Democrats come back into power, key elements of the Democratic Party are going to demand a return to Democratic values, and heads are going to roll".

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