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The Right Wing on College Campuses and the Battle of the Frame
By Jon R. Pike

Liberal Arts faculties at most universities are politically and philosophically one-sided, while partisan propagandizing often intrudes into classroom discourse. It is appropriate for faculty to want open-minded students in their classes, not disciples." This dire quote about academia is on the webs ite of a group called Students for Academic Freedom, a Washington D.C.-based group supported by rig conservative activist David Horowitz. What the quote doesn't say is that the group only approaches this issue from one side and that the group's mission is to win the war of words on this issue using a tactic called "framing."

In a 1993 scholarly article one of framing's chief theorists, Robert Entman, defined framing as, "to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described." Like a picture frame, framing shows some parts of the world outside the window, but not all. Framing is successful when it becomes part of the media discourse.

In December of 2003, the Colorado State Legislature heard from students and faculty about alleged persecution of conservatives on campus. Brian Glotzbach, a student who worked at the bookstore at Metro State University in Denver, said that while conservative authors like Sean Hannity were not making it on to required reading lists, authors like Michael Moore were. About 30 students and faculty members were there to testify in favor of a nationally promoted measure called the Academic Bill of Rights. Coverage of this hearing by the Rocky Mountain News demonstrates that the frame has been successfully embedded in this paper's coverage. The article says that the Academic Bill of Rights is "a proposal to ensure political diversity on campus." The article goes on to say, "The bill was dropped by its sponsor earlier this month after he received assurances from officials of several colleges that students would be protected against discrimination for their views." The article carries the frame that conservative students are being persecuted for their views and need protection.

This frame has traveled through Colorado, Georgia, Missouri, Michigan, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, California, Utah, Washington, and Ohio, where state legislators supported an Academic Bill of Rights. Student governments at Brown, University of Montana, and Utah State passed resolutions supporting measures similar to the Academic Bill of Rights. Chapters of Students for Academic Freedom exist on 135 college campuses. The frame is traveling through the media as well, as a search of the Proudest database shows that over the last year, at least 69 newspapers and newsweeklies covered this issue.

But, as a picture frame only shows part of the view, a news frame tells only part of the story. Students for Academic Freedom encourage members to keep records on the party affiliation of faculty. This has already produced faulty data. According to data compiled by Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture, registered Democrats at 32 schools far outnumber registered Republicans. However, an even greater number are listed as unaffiliated. A footnote says the unaffiliated category includes faculty for whom they could not find voting records. The categories are blurred. There is also no way of knowing how many of the registered faculty are conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans. There is no justification for the conclusion that "most students probably graduate without ever having a class taught by a professor with a conservative viewpoint." Also, keeping track of party affiliation just doesn't sound like a non-partisan activity.

A survey by the Center that purports to show that Ivy League faculty have an overwhelmingly left-wing bias has an unacceptably high sampling error of plus or minus 8 percent. A 5 percent margin of error is the usual acceptable limit for survey research. This high sampling error comes from the fact that the survey got responses from only 151 faculty members from all the Ivy League Schools. Statistician Howard Feinberg raised questions about the sample size in an article for the liberal Internet magazine, Alternet. He wanted to know if the pollster hired to conduct the survey only intended to survey that number of professors, or if that was all that they could get. He didn't get a response.

But framing isn't a rational argument, it's a story. If the frame of campuses dominated by left-wing professors is accepted then it doesn't matter if the data used to support that position is faulty. An April 13, 2004 editorial in the Washington Times repeated the survey's results with no mention of the sample size or margin of error. While the Washington Times is a conservative news source, framing is successful the more it gets repeated.

A May 23, 2004 article from the Christian Science Monitor, speaks of the frame when reporting about the congressional and state initiatives to support the Academic Bill of Rights, "Horowitz, who wrote the bill, said it was intended to protect conservative academics from discrimination on overwhelmingly liberal campuses." This is the frame in its entirety, reported as objective news. Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist, David Kelly, wrote in a November 29, 2003 column: "Some students have complained of being forced to attend abortion-rights rallies, of being required to write essays critical of the Bush administration and of having a strident anti-religion agenda pushed on them. Some who protested have said they received poor grades or were asked to leave the class." Kelly provides no evidence for these charges. But, again, a frame isn't an argument, it is a story. A March, 16, 2004 USA Today article adds to the story as it discusses the movement "to create an 'academic bill of rights' for college campuses, which sponsors say would promote intellectual diversity among faculty and protect students whose political views differ from those of their professors." This quote carries the frame.

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