William & Mary

Legislators rewrite how to run colleges. Rules would protect free speech, or would they?

WILLIAMSBURG - College campuses are touted as an oasis of contrasting ideas. But is there a way to chart  ideological candor?

Increasingly, state legislators around the country think so. More than 20 pieces of legislation have surfaced outside Virginia in an attempt to promote what they regard a "balance of thought." Critics deride that as the thought police.

In Virginia, the idea has been introduced by Del. Steven Landes (R-Augusta) as a way to achieve "intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas" across public college campuses.

The debate comes at a particularly touchy time for the College of William & Mary, where controversy is building over removal of the cross from the altar of the Wren Chapel. Critics are reading all kinds of sinister left-wing behavior into the decision by President Gene Nichol to remove the cross.

Randy Neice, a 23-year-old public policy grad student at the College of William & Mary, says there is no need for the Landes bill, suggesting it reflects political correctness. He cited his own undergraduate  experience at Michigan State.

"I was president of the College Democrats, and my favorite professor was a die-hard Republican," he said. "It's good to have a debate and see what other people are thinking about. Most people know going into a class what the position of the professor is if they hold a particular bias."

Neice admits that college campuses are known for having a liberal slant, but he feels that extreme right-wing thoughts aren't likely to resonate with students because of their professors. That's because young people tend to be liberal anyway, he explained. 

Having an agenda outside of academia is uncommon.

"I doubt professors with strong opinions have a goal to create a political following either," he added.

The Landes legislation would require public universities to annually report on the steps they've taken to ensure a "neutral" learning environment. It could also affect staffing. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore tried that as well.

His bill would lay the groundwork to "develop hiring, tenure, and promotion policies that protect individuals against political viewpoint discrimination and track any reported grievances in that regard."

The fear is that it might do the exact opposite. Opponents say professors are apt to censor their words, knowing that their political opinions may be later used against them if universities are keeping track of them.

For Megan Fitzgerald, who is a field director for the Free Exchange on Campus Coalition, the bill goes against the essence of higher ed. Since the legislation has gained traction, she's been busy in Virginia visiting colleges.

"We want to make sure that the people who are making the decisions know that students and faculty don't want to see education restricted," she said. "I don't think the government should try to micro-manage how professors are going to teach their classes."

Jennie Thollander, a junior at W&M, admits that her neutral politics wouldn't be influenced.

"I don't think prejudices or extreme opinions either way are a huge part of my learning experience," she said.

Neice thinks the free thought already present on college campuses does enough to challenge young minds.

If anything, he believes, an undergraduate may just refute a one-sided perspective.

"Most young people like to reject authority to kind of be a contrarian," he added.