A “Fairness Doctrine” for Academia

In 1949, the United States Federal Communications Commission adopted a general policy which sought to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be “balanced and fair.” This policy was based on the theory that station licensees were “public trustees” and, as such, had an obligation to give those with differing points of view an opportunity to be heard. The “Fairness Doctrine” was interpreted by many as requiring that those with contrasting views be given equal time whenever controversial issues were being discussed. The “doctrine” was abandoned during the Reagan Administration when many government activities were deregulated.

When the bill to reform the nation’s immigration policies, specifically those relating to illegal immigration, was recently being discussed, several Democrat members of the United States Senate called for bringing back the “Fairness Doctrine” out of a sense of frustration; they believed the public was not receiving a fair and balanced discussion of the legislation on talk radio shows, which the Senate Democrats regard as universally conservative and which they thought was having an inordinate influence on the deliberations concerning the legislation.

Personally, I oppose the “Fairness Doctrine” for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it presumes the ignorance of the public and its inability to discern facts from horse manure. But, most significantly, broadcast stations are not owned by the government and should not be considered government activity. With so many different sources of information – newspapers, major television networks, cable television and talk radio, for example – it is difficult for any one source to give us a “snow job.” But, there is one area of American life where I believe something equivalent to a “Fairness Doctrine” ought to be applied: the college classroom.

Despite the clamor for “diversity” on college campuses, one of the most homogenous facets of American life is the college faculty and the perspectives they teach in the classroom with regard to controversial subjects such as “affirmative action.” In fact, college professors have one of the most protected monopolies in our nation. They are protected by tenure, “academic freedom,” and our respect for their right to impart their knowledge without infringement by the trustees, the university president or anyone else responsible for university governance.

I am not proposing to abridge the freedom these classroom dictators enjoy. This would be an instance in which the cure would be worse than the disease. But, unlike someone sitting on the couch with a remote control in hand, a student has little choice but to sit and listen when his or her professor spews forth about the inherent evils of “American imperialism” and how our nation is responsible for many of the things that are wrong on our planet, or why “equity” and “social justice” are being denied to women and “minorities.” In short, it is widely acknowledged that there is little intellectual diversity among university faculties.

One thing I learned from my days as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of California is that solutions to problems of an academic nature are best solved internally rather than imposed from above, no matter how cumbersome the machinery of the academy might operate. Therefore, we should not expect governing boards or university presidents to solve this matter. The solution must originate from within the faculty itself.

For change to occur, faculty leadership at universities throughout the nation must be urged to recognize the long-term harm that will result to them and to the faith the American people should have in higher education from a continued public perception that the academy is intellectually monolithic of thought, goofy and out-of-touch with the American mainstream. When Ward Churchill becomes the face of the college professoriate, American higher education will lose the respect that it has among the taxpaying public. That perception is not far from reality. Little-by-little, the high esteem that we give to higher education is being eroded by the view that “they are out-of-touch” or intellectually intolerant.

After recognition of the problem, leadership within the ranks of the professoriate must actively recruit colleagues who can offer positions that are alternative to the prevailing attitudes and philosophies of their faculty departments, in areas such as political science or philosophy – areas where “controversial” views are more likely to be espoused. A complaint often heard is that few, if any, Republicans or “conservatives” are to be found in the faculties of virtually any university in the nation. This is a complaint that must be taken seriously.

If the desire for “diversity” is to have credibility – and not be hypocritical – university faculties must concern themselves with diversity of thought and recruit more intellectually diverse faculty members to fill their ranks. In the interim, the very least they can do is to bring experts into their classrooms to offer differing perspectives and points of view when controversial subjects are being discussed. Such a “Fairness Doctrine” in higher education could go a long way to strengthening the confidence that all of us should have in our universities. Certainly, if those who want broadcast stations that are privately financed – and which the consumer has a choice to listen to or not – to be “fair and balanced,” the same expectation should be held for taxpayer-financed universities where all choice is abandoned once the classroom door is closed.