DENVER—When Sue Sharkey began her fight for academic freedom at the University of Colorado, she contacted conservative author and activist David Horowitz, whose campaigns against left-wing bias on college campuses are legendary.
Horowitz’s advice to her? Don’t even try.
“His advice was, ‘Don’t do it. Just don’t do it,’” said Sharkey, who sits on the CU Board of Regents.
“He talked to me about the battles he’d been through and how difficult it had been and the attacks that had been made on him. He really was telling me not to do it as a way of protecting me, not because he didn’t agree with me,” Sharkey added.
Sharkey didn’t heed his advice, but Horowitz wasn’t offended. Far from it: In September, the Board of Regents passed a landmark resolution to include “political affiliation or political philosophy” in the university’s non-discrimination policy.
Last month, Horowitz presented her with the Annie Taylor Award for Courage at Restoration Weekend in Palm Beach, Fla., an annual gathering of top conservative thinkers modeled after the liberal Renaissance Weekend.
“I am thrilled with this result,” said Horowitz in a statement. “I applaud Sue Sharkey and Jim Geddes for waging what I am sure was a lonely fight among their fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, to do the right thing and begin to restore an academic environment to our beleaguered university system.”
Protecting students and professors from discrimination based on their political beliefs may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a fight conservatives have waged for years, with little success. Indeed, the University of Colorado is believed to be the first U.S. public university to add political protections to its official non-discrimination policy.
“There have been some other universities where there’s a message to say, ‘We don’t discriminate based on political affiliation or political belief.’ But it’s more of a message. It’s not an actual part of the non-discrimination policy,” said Sharkey. “This policy goes right into the entire non-discrimination policy. It carries with it accountability and consequences.”
The vote was 8-0, with one regent absent. At the same time, the board added “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the policy in order to bring it into compliance with state law.
The unanimous vote came despite some ambivalence over whether the board should wade into a sensitive area with implications for faculty hiring, classroom curriculum and even student grades. During debate, some regents asked whether the policy would mean the university would need to accept debate on extreme philosophies.
“There were some who were saying, ‘So what if someone comes in with a philosophy of Nazism or Marxism?’” said Sharkey. “Of course, this policy applies to them, as well. It’s academic freedom, and though I may find some philosophies repulsive, that doesn’t mean that I, Sue Sharkey, get to decide that’s not allowed in our university.”
This isn’t the first time the CU regents have weighed in on political bias. Last year, the Boulder campus became the first to hire a visiting conservative scholar in order to add balance to the prevailing liberal academic culture.
In June, the regents voted to conduct a “campus climate survey” on discrimination of all kinds at its Boulder, Colorado Springs and Denver campuses. Sharkey said the board is now in the process of choosing a firm to conduct the survey, adding that the effort to identify and address discrimination could take two or three years.
“We didn’t want to just identify discrimination and say, ‘Okay, we have it, now we know, and that’s the end of the story,’ because that really is just the beginning of the story,” said Sharkey. “We want to know about it and we want to fix it. We want to remedy it.”
Why CU? One reason: The university system has an elected board, which now holds five Republicans and four Democrats. Only three other states—Michigan, Nebraska and Nevada—have major state universities with voter-elected boards.
Then again, having a conservative majority doesn’t guarantee a board will attack liberal bias. There’s a prevailing sense on many governing boards that its members should stick to broad policy decisions and steer clear of political debates that could stir unrest among faculty and students.
“For the regents to come together and put our politics to the side and recognize how important this policy is–I thought it was something the entire Board of Regents should be proud of,” said Sharkey. “I’m very grateful for all of them.”
Now that CU has shown it can be done, Sharkey is hopeful that others will move to bring greater academic freedom to universities nationwide.
“I’m pleased that the University of Colorado now has this as part of its policy, but this for me isn’t enough,” said Sharkey. “My hope is that with the success of this at the University of Colorado, other universities are going to start embracing the same policies.”