Cover Story

Losing a beachhead

"Losing a beachhead" Continued...

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

Three days later a New York Times front-page story, headlined "Conservatives Try New Tack on Campus," prominently named UT's program as one "mostly financed by conservative organizations and donors, run by conservative professors." That triggered explosions of the sort I know well. When The New York Times profiled me in 1999, numerous UT professors received querulous calls from colleagues at other universities: Why is the university providing aid and comfort to an enemy? But I, in the journalistic and political arena, was leading with my chin. Koons, a scholar, deserved better.

Numerous UT professors emailed Diehl with complaints that right­wingers were hornswoggling him. Diehl summoned Koons and chewed him out, saying his claims that the program wasn't ideological were wrong because its funding came from conservative organizations. (This should not have surprised Diehl, because the checks went through his office.) Diehl said the departmental chairs did not trust Koons either.

Other meetings led to more pressure, but Koons did not give in. On Nov. 24 he received a letter from Diehl firing him as director. (Koons remains a tenured philosophy professor.) At a meeting in December with a group of faculty members, Diehl vociferously criticized Koons and charged that he had a "slush fund." The evidence of that: Koons had been reimbursed for the cost of three dinners he had hosted for visiting teachers and potential donors.

That attack did not go over well, and Diehl has apparently not repeated it. When I asked him about the meetings and the reasons for Koons' dismissal, he told me, "I do not discuss publicly conversations I have with faculty."

I asked Koons about those meetings and charges: Soft-spoken as always, he defended his integrity yet had little to say about his accusers. But one thoughtful contributor to UT who tracked the sequence of meetings, Barbara Moeller, said that Koons "was painted as a vituperative extremist by people who will stop at nothing. The College of Liberal Arts is a toxic combination of postmodern ideas combined with a Stalinist bureaucracy. I will never, never give another cent to the University of Texas."

Other alumni and WCAI funders also criticized the change. The steering committee met and discussed next steps. According to Lorraine Pangle, "we went around in a circle" asking who would be willing to take Koons' place heading the program. "Everyone said no." This left Diehl in a difficult spot: Would the program and its funding die? Would alumni supporters be as alienated as Moeller?

Diehl went to Pangle and her husband, the distinguished political scientist Tom Pangle, and asked him to be interim director, with his wife assisting. Diehl offered an improved status for the program (it would have to be renamed) and staffing/office space incentives (the steering committee would have to be reconstituted). Pangle said Diehl pleaded, "'Give me a chance.' Tom felt he couldn't say no."

These changes did not go over well with many of the program's supporters. Ion Ratiu, who escaped from Communist Romania in 1977, was a member of the Advisory Council for the College of Liberal Arts from 2007 to 2009. He says that the purge of Koons, the institution of a reconstituted steering committee, and the renaming of the program-it is now the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas (CTI)-"reminds me a lot of the double talk, innuendo, veiled threats, and other standard techniques of the secret police. I dealt with them."

Ironically, Tom Pangle himself had survived a season of innuendo earlier in his career. In 1979, when professors turned down his try for tenure at Yale University, he charged that the decision was "influenced by considerations of [my] purported political views, personal associations, and supposed adherence to or representation of a particular school of thought-the so-called Straussian school."

Straussians-Leo Strauss was a German-American political philosopher-tend to be neoconservative secularists. When one of the members of Pangle's tenure review committee at Yale acknowledged his anti-Straussian bias, Pangle eventually garnered a t­enure offer-but decamped to the University of Toronto. He stayed there 25 years, until moving to Texas and, with his wife, joining the WCAI steering committee. Now he was taking over from Koons, a new victim of innuendo.

Tom Pangle soon moved from interim director to director of WCAI-become-CTI, and Lorraine Pangle became associate director and gained promotion to full professor, with tenure. Diehl, the liberal arts dean, said the program under its new name "has never been in better shape." Tom Pangle told me, "We have been active in the freshman summer orientations, and are getting a good initial response from freshman signing up. Our junior fellows program is active under student leadership." He noted a lecture schedule and executive seminars for alumni.

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