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Losing a beachhead

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.


Bowen Rodkey for World

Losing a beachhead
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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 is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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