After passing a resolution that some took to be an endorsement of the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR), Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) worked quickly on Wednesday to distance itself from it.
Following a visit to BSG from Dean of Academic Affairs Craig McEwen, who said the College will not create a proposed Academic Bias Incident Group (ABIG), and a discussion in which many of the members of BSG expressed disappointment and anger in the way the resolution had been construed, the body passed two subsequent resolutions intended to clarify its intent.
BSG clarified that its endorsement of the ABIG was not intended as an assault on professors' academic freedom and was in no way an adaptation of the ABOR.
Last week, after four months of debate, BSG overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to endorse the ABOR, a bill intended "to secure the intellectual independence of faculty and students and to protect the principle of intellectual diversity" in a 1-19-4 vote.
After rejecting the ABOR, BSG passed a different resolution, the "Declarative Statement Endorsing the Principles of Academic Freedom," that supported the creation of the ABIG. It was to be chaired by McEwen, if created.
McEwen addressed BSG himself at this week's meeting to state that after consulting with the faculty and President Barry Mills, he decided not to create the ABIG.
"That group would do enormous harm to the freedom of expression in classrooms on campus," McEwen said.
"It would have precisely the opposite effect that one might intend by creating essentially a surveillance group for any comments that are made in classroom, and that is going to have a chilling effect on students and faculty."
"Classrooms are places in which we honor the opportunity to make critical comments and where faculty have the mandate to make students uncomfortable by challenging assumptions and preconceptions, by raising questions about fundamental values. That's part of what a liberal education is about. If we don't make students uncomfortable we're not doing our job," McEwen said.
Vice President for BSG Affairs Dustin Brooks '08 explained that the student government modeled the proposed Academic Bias Incident Group after the College's Bias Incident Group.
"The intent behind it was to provide another venue for the discussion of concerns of academic freedom. This is no form of the ABOR and in many ways it strikes an opposing balance," Brooks said.
Following the passage of the resolution, the Maine College Republicans published a press release with the headline "Bowdoin College Student Government Endorses Academic Bill of Rights." The release was reprinted on the Northern Maine news web site, The Magic City Morning Star. This distressed some members of BSG, who felt that their intent had been misconstrued.
"As a member of this body, I am embarrassed with the media attention this has received," said BSG Representative for the Class of 2006 Kendall Brown, who voted against both resolutions.
"It completely undermines the last four months we've been discussing [the issue] to have it misstated in all these different press releases. I really take this as an affront to this body that this happened," she said.
Alex Linhart '06, representative-at-large to the BSG and chairman of the Bowdoin College Republicans, offered a contrasting view.
"Besides the title, I thought the article was fine. I was disappointed with the title because I think it's putting more controversy into a subject that's already sufficiently controversial," Linhart said.
"I'm happy that the BSG passed the resolution. I hope that this is an assertion of student and BSG power that the faculty and administration will take seriously," he said.
Following McEwen's comments, BSG confirmed its rejection of the bill of rights and clarified the intent of its incident group proposal. Confirmation of the ABOR's rejection passed unanimously, and clarification of the ABIG passed 18-1, with two members abstaining.
BSG Representative for the Class of 2008 Ben LeHay proposed a repeal of the original ABIG resolution, saying that he felt the other resolutions were not strong enough in their language.
"This is not only embarrassing, it's enraging," said LeHay, referring to the media coverage.
"There was no follow-up that this wasn't true. I feel like it was very deliberate."
Other BSG members spoke of a need to more carefully consider their actions.
"We were quick to put a vote to the ABIG and I think a lot of it came out of our frustration," Brown said. "We should vote very carefully. We need to remember that our votes not only represent ourselves but the student body."
BSG President DeRay Mckesson '07 said that this experience should serve as a lesson for the group.
"This taught people on student government what it means for us to act in a way that some of them had not understood fully," he said.
"We passed something that was vague. We endorsed this ABIG in spirit. The words are not what people really thought they were voting for."
According to Mckesson, BSG has created a working group, headed by Vice President of Academic Affairs Shrinidi Mani '06, to continue to address the concerns of students who felt that they were victims of discrimination in the classroom.
"The issue is alive and well," Mckesson said.