While attending a Pennsylvania Republican Party picnic, Jennie Mae Brown bumped into her state representative and started venting.
"How could this happen?" Brown asked Rep. Gibson C. Armstrong two summers ago, complaining about a physics professor at the York campus of Pennsylvania State University who she said routinely used class time to belittle President Bush and the war in Iraq.
As an Air Force veteran, Brown said she felt the teacher's comments were inappropriate for the classroom.
The encounter has blossomed into an official legislative inquiry, putting Pennsylvania in the middle of a national debate spurred by conservatives over whether public universities are promoting largely liberal positions and discriminating against students who disagree with them.
A committee held two hearings last month in Pittsburgh and has scheduled another for Jan. 9 in Philadelphia. A final report with any recommendations for legislative remedy is due in June.
`Bill of Rights'
The investigation comes at a time when David Horowitz, a conservative commentator and president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, has been lobbying more than a dozen state legislatures to pass an "Academic Bill of Rights" that he says would encourage free debate and protect students against discrimination for expressing their political beliefs.
While Horowitz insists that his campaign for intellectual diversity is nonpartisan, it is fueled, in large measure, by studies that show the number of Democratic professors is generally much larger than the number of Republicans. A survey in 2003 by researchers at Santa Clara University found that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans on college faculties ranged from 3 to 1 in economics to 30 to 1 in anthropology.
Horowitz said he is pushing for legislation only because schools across the country are ignoring their own academic freedom regulations and a founding principle of the American Association of University Professors, which says that schools are better equipped to regulate themselves without government intervention.
"It became apparent to me that universities have a problem," he said in an interview. "And nothing was being done about it."
Horowitz and his allies are meeting forceful resistance wherever they go, by university officials and the professors association, which argues that conservatives are overstating the problem and, by seeking government action, are forcing their ideology into the classroom.
"Mechanisms exist to address these glitches and to fix them," said Joan Wallach Scott, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and former chairwoman of the professors association committee on academic freedom, in testimony at the Pennsylvania Legislature's first hearing.
"There is no need for interference from outside legislative or judicial agencies," she said.
In a debate with Horowitz last summer, Russell Jacoby, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, portrayed Horowitz's approach as heavy-handed.
"It calls for committees or prosecutors to monitor the lectures and assignments of teachers," he said. "This is a sure-fire way to kill free inquiry and whatever abuses come with it."
So far, the campaign has produced more debate than action. Colorado and Ohio agreed to suspend legislative efforts to impose an academic bill of rights in favor of pledges by their state schools to uphold standards already in place. Georgia passed a resolution that discourages "political or ideological indoctrination" by teachers, encouraging them to create "an environment conducive to the civil exchange of ideas."
While comparable efforts failed in three other states, measures are pending in 11 others. In Congress, House and Senate committees passed a general resolution this year that encourages American colleges to promote "a free and open exchange of ideas" in their classrooms and to treat students "equally and fairly." It awaits floor action next year.
Horowitz's center has spawned a national group called Students for Academic Freedom that uses its Web site to collect stories from students who say they have been affected by political bias in the classroom. The group says it has chapters on more than 150 campuses.
In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are examining whether the political climate at 18 state-run schools requires legislation to bar bias. Armstrong said he discussed the issue in several conversations with Horowitz "as an expert in the field" before calling for the creation of a committee.
"But I don't know if his Academic Bill of Rights is necessary in Pennsylvania," Armstrong said in an interview. "Before we have legislation to change a problem, we first have to determine whether the problem exists. If it does exist, the next question is, `Is it significant enough to require legislation?'"
"So the question I'm asking," he added, "is, `Do we have a problem in Pennsylvania?'"
For now, the answer is unclear. While Armstrong said he has received complaints from "about 50 students" who said they were intimidated by professors expressing strong political views, Democratic members of the committee have called the endeavor a waste of time, and the Republican chairman, Rep. Thomas L . Stevenson, seemed to agree.
"If our report were issued today," Stevenson said, "I'd say our institutions of higher education are doing a fine job."