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ISSUE 117 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 4/9/2004

Classroom politics: Texas professor challenges partisan bias

By Emelie Heltsley
Staff Writer

Friday, April 9, 2004

Dr. Robert Jensen, the number one professor on a University of Texas student Conservative Watch List, spoke to a group of St. Olaf students and faculty last Thursday at a dinner sponsored by Political Awareness Committee (PAC). He discussed the recent "intellectual diversity" controversy and the problems of the current political atmosphere on college campuses.

Jensen asked for "political asylum" when he approached the podium, and said, "We live in a right-wing-dominated world, where the fanatic right-wing is in control of everything."

Jensen questioned the right-wing attack on universities and the media who charge them with liberal bias. "They are already winning," Jensen said. "Why attack the media and the universities?"

According to Jensen, conservative claims of a liberal bias have a "kernel of truth" in them, but have been spun into assertions "that have no coherent argument." Jensen mentioned two major sources of evidence for a liberal bias in college campuses: student complaints and commencement speaker choices.

Jensen said that he invites his students to protest their grades, and he rejects the idea of left-wing professors "conspiring" against conservative students by lowering their grades. But, he said, "If lower grades are systematically consistent, conservatives must not be very smart."

Regarding the liberality of commencement speakers, Jensen said, "You know you're scraping the bottom of the barrel when you talk about commencement speakers. One must search to find any real evidence [in the conservative argument]."

Jensen is a nationally-known political columnist and a professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin. He described his own experiences in UT's journalism department and used the UT to prove the absurdity of "liberal" universities. The business school teaches capitalism only, and their political science department is "centrist," according to Jensen.

Jensen believes that political opinions belong in the university setting.

"In a healthy culture, you'd want the universities and the media to be on the outer edge and criticizing," he said. "If you were true to democracy, you'd want the universities to be as far left as possible."

He added that the use of the classroom to proselytize students' political views is "wrong."

Jensen does not see "balance" as a virtue, saying that it "implies that all opinions are equally valid, when they are not." He used the example of a science class teaching an Earth-centered view of the universe to "balance out" the sun-centered universe believers.

"Am I supposed to present material without critique of my own?" Jensen asked, mentioning his "obligation" to point out right-wing fallacies.

PAC Coordinator Janine Wetzel '05 organized Jensen's coming to campus, after a St. Olaf graduate Erik Esse '92, who works with Jensen, contacted her.

"Dr. Jensen provided an important, well-articulated perspective on an issue that interests many students and faculty," Wetzel said. "I was very thankful [Esse] asked us, and very happy to say yes."

She mentioned the growing interest in intellectual diversity on campus, evidenced by the 90 students and faculty present, which she said was "exceptional for a dinner turnout!"

Of the students who attended the PAC dinner, many held varied opinions about Jensen's talk. "While Dr. Jensen was certainly witty and entertaining, to denounce the initiative for intellectual diversity as a right-wing power grab was not at all accurate," Brittany Larson '06 said. "I sincerely believe that intellectual diversity is embraced by socially responsible people of every political stripe, and if we were dealing with an extreme conservative bias on campus, we would be similarly concerned."

Kelsey Lestor '04 agreed that Jensen's talk was controversial. "It was pretty extreme," Lestor said. "A lot of people were shocked at how liberal he was."

Jensen's main problem with the current political atmosphere of universities is the lack of political discourse and critique. Before television, political life was much more abundant.

"Political debates have been reduced to 'feelings,'" Jensen said. "You can't respond critically to them."

In the question-and-answer session following the speech, one student asked how to make universities more open to political discourse. Jensen stressed the need for more political engagement and debates.

"Critiques need to be responded to responsibly, not defensively," Jensen said. He urges students to make the university a "free, open place" by contributing to political discussion on campuses and contesting other viewpoints.

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