Skip to comments.University accused of censorship
Posted on 01/20/2004 10:35:47 AM PST by Captain Kirk
University accused of censorship
By SEAN REILLY
A conservative faculty organization at the University of Alabama is accusing administrators of censorship after the group was barred from using the campus mail system to distribute its newspaper without regular postage.
Leaders of the organization, known as the Alabama Scholars Association, charge that the decision is payback for their efforts to shake up the status quo, including a proposal for term limits for university administrators and a report that found widespread grade inflation in some departments.
"It's just an effort to quash any sort of dissent," the association's president, history professor David Beito, said last week.
University Provost Judy Bonner responded that school officials simply are following postal regulations that al low the low-cost campus mail system to be used only by "bona fide" university organizations.
"We're trying to follow the law," said Bonner, who became the school's top academic officer last year soon after Robert Witt became the university's president.
This is not the first time, however, that critics have questioned the commitment of Alabama's public universities to the spirit of free and open inquiry that is supposedly the hallmark of academic life.
In 1999, for example, a top Troy State University System administrator acknowledged destroying research that had angered then-Gov. Don Siegelman with its conclusion that revenue from a proposed state lottery would not pay for all the programs Siegelman was promoting.
Two years later, in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of newspapers, a Lee County Circuit Judge ruled that the Auburn University Board of Trustees repeatedly violated the state's sunshine law by meeting in secret. Although the Alabama Supreme Court partly overturned that decision, the board changed its bylaws to foster more openness.
Fight for information:
Still, getting information from school administrators remains a challenge, said Lindsay Evans, editor of the student newspaper, "The Auburn Plainsman."
Last October, for example, President William Walker and several trustees made an unannounced trip to Washington, D.C., to discuss the school's accreditation problems with U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, as well as U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and other members of the congressional delegation. In seeking to confirm the trip, the Plainsman got more help from lawmakers than from the university, Evans said.
"They don't want to be questioned," she said of school officials. "They want to do what they want to some extent."
Auburn University spokesman David Granger denied that allegation, saying the school is responsive to the media. If Auburn officials were "a little more deliberate" about releasing information about Walker's trip last October, Granger said, the reason was their sensitivity to what Paige and lawmakers "wanted to make known about the conversation."
At the time, however, Auburn trustee Jack Miller of Mobile offered a pithier explanation in a Mobile Register article: "What my business is with Richard Shelby is nobody else's business."
Walker resigned Friday, about two months after making another undercover expedition, to the Louisville, Ky., area with two trustees and Athletic Director David Housel to speak to University of Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino about possibly coming back to Auburn as a replacement for Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville. That trip, too, didn't stay secret for long. Walker repeatedly apologized once it became public.
Opening up at USA:
Complaints of secrecy are not universal. At the University of South Alabama, faculty members say the institution has opened up considerably since Gordon Moulton replaced Fred Whiddon as president in 1998.
"There's no perfect setup anywhere, but things are vastly improved," said John Papastefan, a music professor.
But nationally, freedom-of-information advocates say that taxpayer-funded colleges and universities chronically ignore sunshine laws.
In one 1991 episode, two South Carolina news organizations rented a tractor to dig up financial records that a University of South Carolina foundation had dumped into a landfill during a criminal investigation.
Further west, the University of Missouri spent more than a decade in court unsuccessfully arguing that it did not have to release internal audits, said Charles Davis, executive director of the university's Freedom of Information Center.
In part, Davis said, institutions of higher education are "culturally" secretive, with decisions about admissions, hiring and promotions typically made behind closed doors. Aggravating that tendency, he said, is a growing fixation on image and public relations.
"Everything becomes a discussion of 'How will that look?'" he said.
Organized in 2001, the Alabama Scholars Association is the state affiliate of the National Scholars Association, a generally conservative organization whose top concerns include declining academic standards, free speech rights and the use of gender and race in faculty hiring and student recruitment, according to its Web site.
In fall 2002, the Alabama organization reported that some academic departments at the University of Alabama were handing out a much higher ratio of "A" grades than others. Topping the list was the women's studies department, where the percentage of "A's" averaged more than 78 percent for freshman and sophomore courses, according to the group. For the Department of Biological Sciences, the comparable percentage was 11.5 percent.
When association members sought to update their findings last summer, they were told that the university's Office of Institutional Research and Assessment no longer compiled the grade distribution data, Beito said. Soon after they reported that development in the inaugural issue of their newspaper, The Alabama Observer, administrators decided that the Observer could not be sent through campus mail. In Tuscaloosa, about 5,000 copies of the latest issue are instead being distributed on racks, Beito said.
Bonner said the university's decision had "absolutely nothing to do" with the scholars association's activities. Under postal regulations, she said, only organizations funded and managed by the university can use the campus mail system. Others have to use regular stamped mail.
"We have a new administration," she said. "It is simply trying to follow the postal regulations."
At the institutional research office, Director William Fendley said the decision to stop reporting the grade data was made strictly for logistical reasons, not to spare the university any potential embarrassment.
"My budget has been cut; at the same time, our workload has increased tremendously," Fendley said.
Fendley also called the scholars association's handling of the data "shallow," because it didn't take other factors into account. Higher admission standards might be producing better students, Fendley said, or some teachers might be doing a better job of instruction.
"They were concluding something based on some very basic data for which they were not fully using other variables," he said.
The Alabama Observer is not the only publication now prohibited from the university's mail system. Also banned is the newsletter of the Alabama chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a national faculty organization.
"It was really something that came as a total surprise to me," said Maarten Ultee, a history professor who is that group's point man at the University of Alabama. Other state four-year schools continue to allow campus mail distribution of the newsletter, but the University of Alabama organization has resorted to hand delivery.
The national office of AAUP in Washington, D.C., is looking into the issue, an official there confirmed last week. In the meantime, the University of Alabama's history department is planning a conference next year on "freedom and censorship in the university," Ultee said.
Asked whether recent developments influenced the choice of theme, Ultee replied, "It just seemed to us a good topic."
Alabama is a very conservative state. Universities, even deep in the Heart o' Dixie, aren't. Sure to be fallout.
a) teach women's studies
b) be a collossal bore at parties
Uh, yeah. No doubt the 'Women's Studies' department is just brimming with Merit Scholars, unlike those dumb old biologists across campus.
I've been studying women for years. Do they offer transfer credit for life experience?
The disciplines themselves aren't academically rigorous, but if the courses were the least bit difficult, nobody would waste their time.
They compare the grade distribution to bio, but this course is even wussy compared to other courses in the humanities.
Is there any living person who believes this? I wonder if the campus chapter of, say, Womyn for Peace and Palestinian Resistance would be banned from the campus mail?
As for Women's Studies, majors in this field also have prospects in various government protective and mental health agencies, welfare and social work, and, especially, in the ever-burgeoning "diversity" industry. Practically every institution of any size, government or private, now has to have an "office of diversity planning" or something similar to make sure that every grievance group, real or imagined, gets its allocated share of the pie.
"Want fries with that, male chauvinist pig?"
Only 78% As? Must be some men taking those classes.
FWIW things are just the same at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. My Department (Chemistry) grades somewhere around a B minus average. Women Studies like to hand out mostly As.
The College of Education is also terrible at nearly 60 percent A's in intro course..
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