Cover Story

Losing a beachhead

"Losing a beachhead" Continued...

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

Numerous roadblocks then appeared. It wasn't easy to schedule courses or get UT functionaries to agree that students should receive proper credit, countable against complicated distribution requirements, for taking WCAI courses. Koons persevered. He and others raised $1.2 million for the program, money that otherwise would never have come to UT, but administrators were slow to release those funds, even though they were specifically designated for WCAI. Koons persevered.

He also established a lecture series that included speakers from many parts of the political spectrum. Among them were conservatives Robert George and Michael Barone but also Michael Berube (lambasted by conservative David Horowitz as one of the "101 Most Dangerous Academics in America") and Martha Nussbaum (whose pro-homosexual-rights position George has criticized). The series was popular with alumni and the public.

Many students were also impressed. The Daily Texan, UT's student newspaper, published a positive article about the program. Early last September the beachhead seemed secure, and the program officially was able to offer four courses: "Ancient Philosophy and Literature," "Ancient Rome," "Competing Visions of the Good Life and the Just Society," and "Scriptures of the World as Literature." On the surface, all was calm, all was bright. But some faculty members were not silent.

Lorraine Pangle, a professor in UT's government department who had joined the program's steering committee, recently told me that "Rob was doing a great job" but "different positions he had taken publicly were causing us trouble." Which positions? She would not be specific, but said, "His past, his biography . . . they had concerns." Concerns about what? She would not name any. Did Koons come under criticism because of the ABC rule: Anyone But a Christian? Pangle said, "I really don't know. I've wondered about it."

A look through The Daily Texan files does not show connections of Koons with conservative causes, but articles and ads noted his involvement with the Faculty/Staff Christian Fellowship. The Daily Texan also quoted him as opposing an attempt to keep a pro-life group from displaying on campus photos of aborted babies. Koons said that such censorship "would be a black-eye to the University. [Those images] are part of the price you pay to live free."

Sahotra Sarkar, a philosophy department colleague of Koons, said, "Everybody [in the department] likes him. . . . I've been on the same side with him on many academic issues, including teaching logic." But Sarkar does not approve of Koons' "creationism," and he knocked Koons for signing a letter "singling out evolution as something that should be criticized in high school classes." Sarkar's website at one point sported a "Hall of Shame" that blasted Koons and other defenders of Intelligent Design.

Some UT professors whisper about religious discrimination, but Gene Burd, a UT professor for 38 years who has never been promoted to full professor and at this point doesn't care what colleagues say about him, is the exceedingly rare individual willing to speak out. He says that Christians at UT "have to stay in the closet. If they come out, they're doomed." He added, "It's ironic: Texas is a conservative state with many Christians, but this campus is an enclave for leftist indoctrination."

As word spread that WCAI had established a beachhead, professorial machine guns began to spew out a response. Pangle recalls that even though Koons included professors and guest lecturers who were clearly not conservative, "people perceived it as a really right-wing ideological program. [Some thought] we had an American triumphalist lesson we wanted to teach . . . that the West has all the good ideas, that we celebrate dead white males . . . that we have a prescribed canon of books."

Full-time UT professors normally teach only two courses each semester; some arrange to teach one or, with government or foundation grants, none. But one UT professor believed so much in the importance of teaching Western Civilization that he volunteered to teach a WCAI course as an overload: no extra pay. The head of his department refused permission and used very strong language to berate him publicly.

• That's background for what happened from September to November of last year. I've pieced together accounts of the events from faculty members who attended or heard reports of what happened at key meetings. Hearsay testimony should always be regarded skeptically, but in this case all the reports are consistent.

The first major meeting came last Sept 18. It included Koons, liberal arts Dean Randy Diehl, and the chairmen of four UT departments (English, History, Religious Studies, and American Studies). The chairs criticized use of "Western Civilization" in the name and WCAI's positive attitude toward the American founding. Koons stood his ground.

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