March 12, 2005

Bad News for Academe in Utah

via Michael Berube, this horrifying tidbit:

Legislators wield one potent weapon: money. In January, Utah state senators quietly red-lined funding for a $37 million digital-learning center at Utah Valley State College.

The senators were worried about "the drift of the campus," says UVSC president Bill Sederburg, who fielded complaints from them about an Oct. 20 campus speech by Michael Moore, a student production of The Vagina Monologues and a course on queer theory in literature. "The legislators are saying 'We don't want the college to go too far and lose touch with the community.' But we have an obligation to protect academic freedom."

The state legislators may have realized that the Establishment Clause means that they can't mandate public universities to teach religion. But if the universities want to countenance politically incorrect views, the Legislature will feel free to starve them to death. Not only is this inimical to the mission of a university's spirit of inquiry--it's intended that way.

At least the state government finally got around to approving funds for earthquake-proofing the University of Utah's main library. (Previous complaint.)

The University of Utah also recently passed its accommodations policy (see here). The Salt Lake Trib editorializes (link will expire soon, because the SLT hates it when you link to their content):

The policy says that students who have to miss a class must let the professor know early, so they can decide together how work can be made up. Students are not allowed to simply "opt out" of a course assignment for any reason. If a student objects to some aspect of class content because of "sincerely held beliefs," the teacher can try to modify the requirement, but only if there is a "reasonable alternative." Faculty are not required to alter course content overall or adjust what they teach based on what might conflict with any individual student's beliefs.

Which sounds reasonable. The danger is that, since it's going to work like this:

Under the new policy, a student's request to opt out of having to read or recite certain materials must be considered by the professor, who can then decide whether to accommodate the student's request.

If the student's request is denied, the professor's dean has the right to overturn the decision.

If the professor or instructor disagrees with the dean's decision, it is the dean's responsibility to administer an alternative academic requirement for the student to satisfy the objective of the assignment or material

it might be that a professor would tend to accede to unreasonable requests, rather than go through the rigmarole of an appeals process. On the other hand, professors hate acceding to unreasonable requests. So maybe it'll work out. But I fear that the Legislature will not be above putting pressure on the U. if it doesn't like the decisions that this board makes.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 12, 2005 02:35 PM

The Accommodations policy is yet another sad chapter in the dismal history of academics in Utah.

Matt, you might want to check out some new information that has recently surfaced in a survey of high school students. The survey found that students think there should be more governmental control over the media. I cannot find a link to it right now, but I did read it somewhere online.

Governmental control of the media is a truly frightening thought!

Posted by: Joe at March 29, 2005 11:42 PM