As part of a campaign to promote an "Academic Bill of Rights" on college and university campuses, conservative pundit David Horowitz has repeatedly cited an incident in which he claims that a criminology professor at the University of Northern Colorado asked students to explain "why President Bush was a war criminal" for a mid-term exam essay, then failed a student who chose instead to explain why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal. Horowitz claimed that this student testified about her experience at a special hearing before the Colorado state legislature in December 2003. But Horowitz has never provided the names of the professor or the student, and transcripts of the hearing to which Horowitz himself linked do not mention the incident. Nonetheless, accounts of the alleged incident have been repeated in several national media outlets.
Horowitz is the founder of Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), an organization that describes itself as "a clearing house and communications center for a national coalition of student organizations whose goal is to end the political abuse of the university and to restore integrity to the academic mission as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge." SAF promotes Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights" and lists instances of alleged anti-conservative bias on campuses across the country, including the alleged episode at the University of Northern Colorado. The SAF website itself does not identify the University of Northern Colorado as the site of the alleged "war criminal" incident occurred -- it refers instead to "a Colorado university" and is the only one of the 12 such incidents on the SAF list for which no specific institution is identified -- but Horowitz has identified the University of Northern Colorado as the site of the incident in other forums.
In a September 13, 2004, article on FrontPageMag.com, of which Horowitz is co-founder and editor-in-chief, he wrote about the December 2003 hearing before the Colorado state legislature: "Among the evidence presented at this December hearing was testimony from a student at the University of Northern Colorado who told legislators that a required essay topic on her criminology mid-term exam was: 'Explain why George Bush is a war criminal.' When she submitted an essay explaining why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal instead, she was given an 'F.'" The article contained a link to a transcript of the December 18, 2003, hearing, hosted on the SAF website (page 1 and page 2). But the transcript itself contains no mention of the "University of Northern Colorado," "Saddam Hussein," "war criminal," "war crimes," "criminology," or anything else to indicate that any such incident was discussed at the hearing. A search for "Bush" turns up unrelated references.
Notwithstanding his failure to document the alleged incident, Horowitz has repeatedly pushed this story as an example of what he considers anti-conservative bias in America's universities. In a December 5, 2003, FrontPageMag.com column, Horowitz referenced the story, though he attributed it to "a Colorado university," not to the University of Northern Colorado. Other publications have cited the alleged incident, including The Christian Science Monitor; The New York Sun (registration required); and an op-ed on OpinionJournal.com, the website of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, by Brian C. Anderson, senior editor of City Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the conservative Manhattan Institute.
Horowitz also referenced this story twice during an online chat session on "Colloquy Live," hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education's website. In the course of the chat session, a person who identified himself as a teacher from the University of Northern Colorado questioned the need for Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights," to which Horowitz responded, in part: "Isn't your school the one where a criminology professor assigned a paper 'Why George Bush is a war criminal'? I think you have problems." None of these references to the alleged incident cites specific details, such as a date or the names of the student, the professor or the course.
Mano Singham, the director of Case Western Reserve University's Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, described his own fruitless efforts to locate the professor in question in a March 4 op-ed in The Cleveland Plain Dealer:
So I called the acting head of the political science department, the dean's office and the provost's office at the University of Northern Colorado and asked them if they knew anything more. They had never heard of this story and were all surprised to hear that they were supposedly harboring this fiend. You would think they would have known since any student grievance against the professor would surely have been a high-profile case, at least reported in the local newspapers.
I was baffled. But then on April 6 , Horowitz sent me in a different direction when he gave an interview on NPR; he said that this story was part of testimony given by students at a special hearing of the state legislature in Colorado, called to look into alleged abuses of this kind.
So I obtained transcripts of the Colorado legislative hearings. But mysteriously, no such testimony appeared there.
As a last resort, I tried a Google search of this story, but none of the hits identified Professor X.
This incident is not the first time that Horowitz has trumpeted dubious anecdotes in the service of his ideological agenda. Media Matters for America has documented Horowitz's embrace of Kuwaiti student Ahmad al-Qloushi, who claimed he received a failing grade on a term paper because it expressed a "pro-American" viewpoint. In fact, al-Qloushi's professor and a number of conservative bloggers who have seen the paper maintain that it deserved a failing grade.