Using New Policy, Students Complain About Classroom Bias on 2 Pa. Campuses
By ROBIN WILSON
Two undergraduates on Pennsylvania State University's main campus have filed four complaints against instructors under new procedures designed to help students who believe that their professors have presented biased lessons in the classroom. Two more complaints have been filed at Temple University.
Penn State and Temple put their student-complaint procedures in place in 2006, after Pennsylvania's legislature held much-publicized hearings to investigate allegations that professors had indoctrinated students in left-wing ideology and discriminated against conservatives.
David Horowitz, a conservative activist, has made those allegations against higher education in general. But Penn State and Temple appear to be among only a few universities in the country that have adopted special procedures allowing students to complain. The process lets students file complaints if they think professors are one-sided in presenting course material or if they think professors have introduced subject matter that is not germane to the course.
Temple would not release the complaints to The Chronicle, although a spokesman said the grievances "were resolved to the satisfaction of the students." The two undergraduates at Penn State who filed complaints gave copies to The Chronicle, along with their correspondence about the matter with professors and administrators.
Abigail H. Beardsley, who will be a senior at Penn State in the fall, filed a complaint about an instructor in a French course. A.J. Fluehr, who will graduate with a degree in political science in August, filed three complaints concerning faculty members and graduate teaching assistants in English, speech communications, and human sexuality.
Coping With Complaints
Penn State administrators investigated the four complaints. In two cases, the officials acknowledged that the instructors either may have acted inappropriately or could have done a better job of ensuring that a variety of views were presented. Officials dismissed the two other complaints, saying they found no problem with the instructors' teaching methods.
Mr. Horowitz worked with the Penn State students in shaping their complaints. He said university officials responded with hostility to some of them. "It takes an incredibly stubborn, gutsy student to follow through," he said, noting that one of Mr. Fluehr's complaints took more than a year to resolve.
But Blannie E. Bowen, vice provost for academic affairs, said he is proud of Penn State's complaint policy, which is "far more than most universities have," he said. "We encourage students to submit complaints, and we do so very publicly. It is very fair."
The complaints filed at Penn State involved multiple issues.
The one filed by Ms. Beardsley said a graduate instructor in French last spring inappropriately showed part of the movie Sicko, by Michael Moore, which criticizes the American health-care system and applauds the more-socialized systems of care in European countries. Ms. Beardsley said showing the film in a French reading, speaking, and writing course was inappropriate because it did not use any French terms. She also said the instructor had not given students much time to debate the film.
"Feeding students unalloyed propaganda, without critical materials, in a class not designed to address such issues can have a powerful indoctrinating effect," Ms. Beardsley wrote in her complaint.
Heather McCoy, coordinator of the French-language program, investigated the complaint and determined that Sicko was an appropriate teaching tool because the film portrays French culture through the country's health-care system. But she said the course instructor may not have left enough time for students to discuss critical views of the film. Ms. McCoy also said she regretted that "the polemical nature of Michael Moore's film" had gotten in the way of instruction.
Cartoons and Controversy
In one of his three complaints, Mr. Fluehr said a graduate instructor had told him that a speech Mr. Fluehr wrote for a class in the spring of 2006 had offended three students. The instructor had warned him that his grade would be jeopardized if he delivered another controversial talk.
During his speech, Mr. Fluehr displayed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked protests among Muslims worldwide in 2005 after they were published in a Danish newspaper.
James P. Dillard, head of the department of communication arts and sciences at Penn State, backed the instructor's warning to Mr. Fluehr, telling him that a speech is not effective if it alienates listeners. But Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, said Mr. Fluehr may have justifiably felt censored, and she ruled that the communications department should spend more time training graduate instructors in how to guide student speeches without appearing to limit controversy.
Mr. Fluehr also filed complaints regarding two other classes. He objected to an English course on effective writing in the social sciences, which he took in the spring of 2007, on two grounds: that it required only two books, both of which he said were left of center, and that the professor showed Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, even though global warming, Mr. Fluehr argued, is a matter of environmental, not social, science.
"The left-wing view of global warming was inappropriately presented as though it were fact," he wrote in his complaint.
Dean Welch found that complaint without merit because, she wrote, the professor had "required students to pose critical questions about the material" and had used the movie not to teach about global warming but to show students "how to analyze a rhetorical argument."
Mr. Fluehr also found multiple grounds for complaint in a course on human sexuality and health that he took that same spring. He said the professor had misrepresented Americans' views on abortion as more favorable than Mr. Fluehr believed the data showed. He also said the professor had degraded the value of abstinence-only sexual education in schools.
Mr. Fluehr cited as well a graduate teaching assistant in the course, whom he said had made a wisecrack about how Pennsylvanians were fortunate that Rick Santorum, a former Republican U.S. senator, was no longer in office.
Ann C. Crouter, dean of the College of Health and Human Development, responded that the professor was not biased in her classroom presentations or discussions. The dean also said the teaching assistant contended that in making the remark about Mr. Santorum, he was merely repeating a comment by a student to make sure the rest of the class had heard it.
Mr. Horowitz said he and the students had achieved a "small victory" in Dean Welch's ruling in the complaint about the speech class. "Some teachers at Penn State are going to understand better their responsibilities as educators," he said. But he found the larger picture discouraging, given the resistance he said the complaining students had met from professors and administrators.
"This has illuminated the bigger problem," Mr. Horowitz said, "which is that the university community is not yet willing to support its own academic-freedom principles as they apply to students."