Cover Story
Bowen Rodkey for World

Losing a beachhead

Back to School | Rob Koons, a University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor and a Christian, poured six years into development of a UT Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions. Then administrators yanked it away from him

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas-"And Jesus said to His disciples . . . 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.' When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, 'Who then can be saved?'" (Matthew 19:23-25).

"Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Boney fingers" (Hoyt Axton).

I try to leave myself out of news/feature stories. I need to be in this one, slightly. That's because, from the viewpoint of some university administrators, I was Mr. Wrong-and without an exhibition of my good/bad record, what happened to Mr. Right might not seem so bizarre.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

For two decades I was a highly rated (by students) professor at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the U.S. academic leaders as measured by size, endowment, and influence. But secular liberal professors and administrators hated the way I spent my non-classroom working time: I wrote pointed columns and books from a Christian perspective, edited WORLD, and consorted with conservative politicians.

Not so the hero (or villain) of this piece, University of Texas philosophy professor Rob Koons. He is also known as a Christian, but for two decades he wrote largely for academic journals rather than magazines. He has been soft-spoken and diplomatic, patiently attending faculty meetings and sitting on committees. Until last month (see sidebar below) he generally refrained from assaulting what has become a corrupt system of higher education. My manners were poorer.

Koons, born in 1957, attended Michigan State, Oxford, and UCLA. In 1987 he completed his dissertation on logical paradoxes of truth and rationality. He subsequently joined both the UT philosophy department and a local Lutheran congregation. He concluded an autobiographical account on his website with a declaration of his desire to explore "the correlations between philosophical insight and the One who is the Truth."

In 2002 Koons began meeting with three other UT professors-J. Budziszewski, Dan Bonevac, and me-to develop a program that would challenge the combination of smorgasbording (a bite of this, a taste of that) and ideological waterboarding that rules the typical liberal arts curriculum. We all agreed that a program we dubbed Western Civilization and American Institutions (WCAI) might serve many students much better.

In 2003 we developed a list of proposed readings within the program that included Plato and Aristotle but also selections from the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin; Benjamin Franklin's autobiography but also Whittaker Chambers' Witness, which tells of his move from faith in Marx to faith in Christ. WCAI majors would graduate with an integrated understanding rather than a mix of propaganda and trivia.

Our proposed program was clearly secular but-out of both personal and professional interest-we did not ignore the role of religion. We stated that the "perennial question as to the proper sources of human wisdom and the place of religion in human life will be a major theme of many Western Civilization courses, whether they focus on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and their major interpreters, the philosophical tradition arising in ancient Greece . . . or the challenge posed by new religious movements in the contemporary world."

We all agreed that Koons should chair our effort. We agreed that WCAI would not be just a conservative program but would enlist moderates and also those liberals who were not so ideologically driven that they would mine Shakespeare largely for examples of sexism or see homosexuality in the relationship of David and Jonathan.

Our largest disagreement concerned the question of whether to run inside or outside. Would WCAI be more likely to succeed by being non-threatening to UT administrators and professors, or should we try to enlist conservative alumni and state legislators in our battle for change? Thinking that money from alumni would talk and red state politicians would squawk, I favored outside pressure. Koons pushed for the inside strategy and, over the next several years, surprised me with his success.

Success did not come easily. Even though WCAI excited potential funders, hostile or suspicious academics with government-guaranteed incomes cared more for party lines than bottom lines. Several times, like Jacob's uncle Laban, they demanded extensive program changes. In June 2005, the UT College of Liberal Arts voted down the proposal. But Koons persevered, gently giving non-threatening replies to inquiries and finding common ground with three dozen UT professors (most of them not conservative) who formed an advisory board.

In August 2005, noting the opposition, we agreed to begin with a "concentration" without much clout rather than a separate major. That made no difference at first: In February 2006, UT's provost rejected the proposal. Again Koons persevered, and later that year the WCAI concentration gained approval. Contributions began arriving from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Manhattan Institute's Veritas Fund, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, and others.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…