Cover Story

Losing a beachhead

"Losing a beachhead" Continued...

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

He concluded, "We have four post-doc teaching fellows and one visiting scholar next year. The Dean has given us Center status, office space for all (being remodeled over the summer) and is paying half of our staff budget, and has been extremely supportive in advancing and defending our program in the university community-where, as I am sure you realize, we continue to encounter skepticism in some quarters."

But World obtained a June 26, 2009, memo to Diehl from Daniel Bonevac, the Classics professor who is the only one of the original steering committee members still involved with the program. Bonevac noted that "many, perhaps most, of the donors to the Program share the original conception and recognize that the Pangles have abandoned it. They have not so far done much to keep those donors on board. Indeed, many of the donors have the view that the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions has been destroyed and a cheap substitute has been put in its place."

The memo noted that attendance at CTI events "has been disappointing" and "morale among the Program's various constituencies is low. . . . The base of donor support Rob built up is fraying." Apparently, some Texans supported the program because they are loyal to Western civilization and American institutions, and the study of "core texts" (which now include Karl Marx) does not excite them. Bonevac's memo raised the prospect of "winding down the Program as financial support for it dwindles."

This story has many other parts. A Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives, Lois Kolkhorst, introduced in April a bill to create the School of Ethics, Western Civilization and American Traditions at UT. It went nowhere. During the summer members of the new CTI steering committee agreed that the Pangles should be appointed program co-directors. But the statement that sticks in my mind is Tom Pangle's in The Daily Texan: "Rob Koons did a great job of starting the project. He was less successful at winning allies."

If Koons, a gentle and diplomatic Christian, could not win allies, who can? If he could not succeed within an institution paid for in part by conservative Texas taxpayers, what hope is there for others in Texas or other states? Is it easier to go through the eye of a needle than to win anything more than a beachhead? And is even that too much for dug-in leftists who claim every square inch for their gods and refuse to relinquish anything?

Koons worked his fingers to the bone, and what did he get?

Fighting the uncurriculum

Professor Rob Koons addresses the downfall of UT's Western Civilization program and suggests a way to get around "the tyranny of the faculty majority"

By Marvin Olasky

0 Enough is enough! Rob Koons finally broke his public silence last month and wrote (on the website of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy) an analysis of what happened:

"In retrospect, we overestimated the value of strong support from outsiders such as private donors, legislators, and policy groups, while we underestimated the determination of our internal opponents.

"The main obstacle to our success was the idée fixe of unbridled faculty governance over the curriculum, which dominates at UT and elsewhere. In practice, that means the tyranny of the faculty majority.

"Our program was rightly perceived as a threat to the monopoly of what I call the Uncurriculum, which prevails at UT and at most universities today. It is the absence of required courses and of any structure or order to liberal studies. The Uncurriculum dictates that students accumulate courses that meet a 'distribution' standard-a smattering of courses scattered among many categories. Even within majors, the trend has been to eliminate required sequences. . . .

"The Uncurriculum free-for-all gives undergraduates only the illusion of choice. In reality, the Uncurriculum model is entwined with the interests of the professoriate. If there are no courses students are required to take, there are no courses that professors are required to teach.

"Professors at research universities focus on the accumulation of prestige through publication, the indispensable means for acquiring tenure and increasing one's salary (through the leverage of outside offers). By allowing students to pick what they want to study, the Uncurriculum model eliminates a potentially great distraction from the quest for publications: the burden of teaching a required curriculum, unrelated to one's own narrow research agenda. . . .

"Rather than admit this self-interest, liberal arts professors at UT use postmodern and multicultural ideas to defend the Uncurriculum. These fashionable ideas form an 'ideology' in Marx's sense: a system of ideas designed to cloak, rationalize, and defend an unjust set of relationships, namely, the exploitation of undergraduates and their underwriters (parents, taxpayers, and donors). . . .

"Due to the Uncurriculum, the humanities are committing slow suicide. There has been a steady decline in liberal arts majors in the last thirty years (from over one-half to fewer than one-quarter of the total). However, the decline is slow enough to make little difference to tenured professors.

"Our intention at the University of Texas was to challenge the Uncurriculum. . . . Our introduction of a student-centered, traditionally structured liberal arts alternative would threaten the gentleness of the decline as experienced by mainline departments and perhaps force them to offer a real curriculum in order to compete. For the academic gatekeepers, it was far easier to keep out the competition.

"In addition to underestimating the power of the faculty majority, we also learned that reform-minded trustees cannot count on the appointment of sup­posedly sound and non-political administrators. Administrators will always side with the faculty majority in defending the Uncurriculum. Instead, trustees must be willing to do one of two things: (1) get their hands dirty by dictating the details of curricular reform, over the objections of the faculty gatekeepers and their administrative allies, or (2) create alternative mechanisms for the introduction of academic programs.

"Our program was a sound alternative to the Uncurriculum. It was privately funded and offered students a coherent way of satisfying many of their general education requirements. Unfortunately, the faculty saw our program as foreign and threatening, and therefore attacked it, much as the human body automatically attacks transplanted organs. We need to prevent that from happening in the future.

"One idea, which state legislators could implement, is the creation of 'charter colleges' within existing state universities. The state could authorize groups of three or more professors, together with a private foundation or even a for-profit sponsor, to propose charters for innovative programs like ours. If its charter were approved by an outside board, a charter college would be authorized to offer specific courses to satisfy designated components of the state's core, as well as certificates, minors, and majors. Faculty in the rest of the university would not control the decisions of the charter college.

"The experience of the Western Civilization and American Institutions program underscores a sad truth about higher education in America-it is mostly run by and for the faculty. What it likes and dislikes trumps what would be best for students. Our system will never fully achieve its promise as long as that remains true."

'Centers' of attention

By Marvin Olasky

Beachheads at some other major universities exist. Among them are The Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia, The Center for the Foundations of Free Societies at Cornell, The Program in American Citizenship at Emory University, The Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College, and The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy at Georgetown.

They vary in quality and intent, but typical beachhead activities include public lectures and debates, research by young faculty members, and visits by senior professors. The programs are typically "centers": That puts them in a weak position in relation to "departments" that have their own professorial staffs, student majors, and regular funding from university coffers. "Centers" largely depend on the kindness of strangers and the willingness of uncollegial colleagues to let them survive. Humanities and social sciences students still have to major in fields that typically offer two competing points of view: liberal and radical.

These Western Civilization beachheads often receive financial support from the Pennsylvania-based Jack Miller Center for Teaching America's Founding Principles and History, which also funds summer seminars on history and politics, as well as workshops on publishing and course development. The Manhattan Institute's Veritas Fund for Higher Education Reform gives programs up to three years of seed capital, and the Lehrman American Studies Center helps young professors deepen their understanding of America's roots, develop curriculum, and improve teaching. Overall, several million dollars of grants compete against billions controlled by the left.

One program may have moved beyond beachhead status: Princeton's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, directed by one of America's leading professors, Robert George. The program, founded in 2000, awards up to six fellowships to visiting professors each year. Those fellows plus an array of speakers give undergraduates the opportunity to hear perspectives they are unlikely to encounter in the classroom. The Program uses Princeton buildings and draws in some of the bright students Princeton attracts.

The James Madison Program rode in on a gigantic backlash against Princeton's appointment to the faculty of infanticide supporter Peter Singer. Affluent but appalled alumni like Steve Forbes closed their wallets, but later opened them to support the Madison program. Even so, the going has not been easy.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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