Syllabus statement draws fire

Jeremy Fugleberg

Erik Ebsen

A new required statement in course syllabi guaranteeing academic freedom has sparked campus-wide discussion, some faculty consternation and the creation of an informal discussion group.

The South Dakota Board of Regents made the statement mandatory earlier this year.

The statement says students’ opinions should have no effect on grades. It also provides complaint guidelines for those students who feel they’re being discriminated against by professors.

The new statement doesn’t actually change any school policy. Bob Burns, political science professor, said the BOR called for the change to deter the South Dakota Legislature from more aggressive regulation.

The South Dakota Legislature killed a bill in February requiring state institutions to report steps taken to promote intellectual diversity and free exchange of ideas.

The BOR decision shows the legislature “that we can do this ourselves,” said Carol Peterson, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.

But not all faculty agree with the BOR’s move.

“I would like to see it withdrawn,” Meredith Redlin, sociology professor and faculty spokeswoman aid. “The statement sets up an adversarial relationship between professors and students … undermining what we do as faculty. The point of doing it is political. That’s just what we’re not supposed to be.”

Redlin said the board issued the statement as a reaction against conservative political pressure.

Burns admitted the BOR’s decision has “invited some mixed reaction by faculty.”

“We [as professors] have always been expected to be fair and unbiased,” he said.

Delmer Lonowski, political science professor, said the passage is “necessary,” because it allows for a true diversity of ideas rather than merely playing “lip service” to the notion.

Burns said students have always had the right to appeal when they have a problem with their instructor, and this statement only makes students more aware of that. Its addition “doesn’t require more of professors than has been the case,” he said.

It’s not altogether unreasonable that students question the grades they’re given, said Burns. However, it does make it possible for professors to be charged without justification. Even though that opportunity has existed for years, it hasn’t been a problem, he said.

But in response to the BOR’s requirement, an informal discussion group has been formed to debate the statement’s implications in the classroom, said Mary Kay Helling, Academic Affairs associate vice president. Details concerning the group, when they will meet and who will be involved in the group, have not been determined.

If a student believes he or she is being evaluated unfairly, Helling and Peterson advise talking to the professor first. If still unsatisfied, go to the department head, then the dean.

“Many students aren’t aware of [this process] until they need it,” said Helling.

The existing process of speaking to the professor, then the department head, and finally the dean hasn’t changed. It’s meant to protect both parties-professor and student-against false charges.

“The burden of proof is on the student,” Peterson said.

U.S. Congress has debated regulations on college professors for years. According to Jim Shekleton, lawyer for the BOR, some well-funded organizations claim that state colleges are “all infused with left-wing, political values” that are against conservative, political and religious beliefs. He said these groups perpetuate the idea that liberals are unfair to conservatives, using voter registration trends as proof.

“Their whole thesis is pretty questionable,” he said.

While he didn’t deny that individual cases might happen, Shekleton said there really is no evidence that South Dakota has a problem with its professors. He also said the laws regarding this subject haven’t changed.