Politics threaten academic freedom

September 19, 2002|By Richard T. Ingram

WASHINGTON - The University of Maryland's decision to assign freshmen to read a play on the killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard comes on the heels of a successful resolution of a similar controversy at the University of North Carolina.

The decision by higher education leaders in Chapel Hill to press on with a class-wide reading assignment of a book about the Quran, despite opposition from certain Christian activists and legislators, was a victory for academic freedom.

But both of these episodes are part of an ongoing larger conflict about the responsibilities of public universities in a free society. Unfortunately, efforts by certain ideologically motivated groups and state legislators to impose their values and influence on academic circles have been going on in several states, especially in our own region.

America's founders had the foresight to erect a kind of firewall between government and the conduct of education at all levels. Rather than award direct control of universities to elected political leaders, they entrusted this responsibility to independent citizen trustees and governing boards, a legacy too often forgotten by some of today's elected leaders.

In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening also has been criticized in the press for making many strictly political and patronage appointments to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. He made it clear to that board during his first term that he would decide who would lead it as its board chair - this from a former educator who apparently couldn't see that this was a patronizing intrusion on the independence of the university system and the governing board.

In New York, Gov. George Pataki and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have used political influence and ideologically driven board appointments to interfere in the most fundamental matters of institutional mission: admissions policies, curriculum and strategic direction.

Such decisions are more appropriately left to independent-minded men and women who serve on the governing boards and the faculties of the State University of New York and the City University

Richard T. Ingram is president of the Washington-based Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

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