Proposed Bill Calls For Close Supervision Of Universities

This story was written by Alex Duncan, Oklahoma Daily
The Oklahoma Legislature will consider a bill this spring that would bring OU and other state colleges and universities under closer supervision of state lawmakers.

HB 2600, also called the Higher Education Sunshine Act, would require public higher learning institutions to file an annual report with the Legislature detailing how they had promoted intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas.

Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, the bill's author, said he wants to protect students and faculty who hold divergent views on controversial issues, such as global warming, evolution and intelligent design.

Wesselhoft said he was inspired by stories of student and faculty discrimination at universities around the country but was unsure whether it was a problem in Oklahoma.

"I don't know if the bill is needed," he said. "I'd like to hear from both students and professors if there is a problem."

Wesselhoft said he expects some opposition from professors and university presidents, but he thinks OU President David L. Boren will support the bill. Boren refused comment, citing the legislation's pending status.

The bill defines intellectual diversity as "the foundation of a learning environment that exposes students to a variety of political, ideological, religious and other perspectives."

It outlines a variety of ways institutions could promote intellectual diversity, most notably with respect to curricula, hiring and tenure policies, fund distribution to student groups and the selection of speakers and panelists.

University reaction

Phillip Klebba, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said intellectual diversity already exists at OU.

"Diversity is already a, if not the, defining characteristic of institutions of higher education," he said.

Klebba pointed to OU's wide-ranging ethnic, political and religious differences as some examples.

He said requiring OU to report to the Legislature duplicates existing policy; OU already conducts comprehensive annual reviews of all academic activities.

This information works its way up through the chain of command, he said, to Boren who then relays it to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

"Are state legislators better qualified to evaluate intellectual diversity than the individuals in this chain of authority?" he asked. "Most of whom have spent their entire careers seeking to optimize the learning environment of colleges and universities."

Klebba also expressed his fear that allowing lawmakers to directly supervise university policies may lead to government regulation of which subjects and concepts are acceptable in the classroom or who can instruct those topics.

Rep. Bill Nations, D-Norman, echoed those concerns.

"I want to be very careful about having the Legislature dictate what diversity is," he said. "There would be a danger of politicians writing curricula."

Nations said university policies should be at least one step removed from political control to protect academic freedom.

But Wesselhoft dismissed the notion he was overstepping his bounds.

"I'm just asking for a report," he said. "This bill does not coerce any changes."

Rod Jahromi, supply chain management senior and Student Congress vice-chair, said no report was needed.

"I've never seen students or student organizations discriminated against because of their ideas," he said.

Jahromi said, in his 3-and-a-half years in Student Congress, he has witnessed professors respect divergent viewpoints and the university bring a wide range of speakers to debate controversial issues. The history

Wesselhoft's bill hearkens back to 2004 when David Deming, associate professor in the Colleg of Arts and Sciences, filed a federal lawsuit against OU officials, alleging they had violated his right to academic freedom and his due process and free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution.

In the lawsuit, Deming claimed he was removed from his department, closely monitored by his superiors and moved to a basement office after writing controversial letters to The Daily and questioning the ethics of some of his colleagues.

According to court records, the parties involved reached a settlement, and the case was dismissed.

In an e-mail, Deming refused to rehash the circumstances surrounding the lawsuit, but he emphasized Boren's support for intellectual diversity at OU.

"President Boren has always been an outspoken advocate of free speech and academic freedom," he said. "And I think we should all follow his example."

Wesselhoft said he could not say his bill would apply to Deming's situation without knowing the specifics of the case.

Cheryl Jorgenson, assistant provost and director of Institutional Research and Reporting, said her office creates most of the reports OU puts out, but she could not confirm whether it would be responsible for the report HB 2600 would mandate.

The legislative session begins Feb. 4 and goes through May.
© 2008 Oklahoma Daily via U-WIRE