Inside Higher Education
Dec. 8, 2005
The Culture Wars of 2005
— Scott Jaschik
The conservative journal The New Criterion is the last place you’d expect to
find any gratitude for Ward Churchill. But writing there this summer, Roger
Kimball found a “bright side” to the controversial University of Colorado
professor: He brought more scrutiny to higher education.
In an essay called “Retaking the University: A Battle Plan,” Kimball writes
that “one of the chief tasks for critics of what has happened to academic life
in this country is to show the extent to which Ward Churchill” is not unusual,
but is “the predictable result of institutions that have gradually abandoned
their commitment to education for the sake of radical posturing.”
The public revulsion to Churchill’s statements — especially his comparison of
those who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 to “little Eichmanns” — is
“good news,” Kimball writes, in that it suggests that higher education “may be
about to change.”
Kimball isn’t the only one who thinks that the battles in academe over the
last year may add up to something far more significant than the question of
whether Churchill can hang on to his tenure, whether a new course on
intelligent design is ever offered at the University of Kansas, or whether
universities hire more conservatives.
Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a
group that pushes for a traditional curriculum, says that she believes we are
“either approaching or at a tipping point” in terms of public attitudes about
higher education, adding that “in looking at the issues of concern to us,
we’re seeing a real response and receptivity unlike any I’ve seen before.”
From a different perspective, Cary Nelson, the Jubilee Professor of Liberal
Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, says he sees “an emerging discomfort with faculty free
speech,” especially on issues related to Iraq, terrorism and certain other
topics. He thinks that the issues on which academics are finding themselves on
the defensive today are much more combustible politically than the issues for
which conservatives attacked academe in previous rounds of culture wars.
“The culture wars of the ’80s were really a kind of backwater. How much
Shakespeare was or was not being taught wasn’t a big issue to an awful lot of
Americans, so a lot of the culture wars were really just an amusing bit of
public entertainment,” he says.
Now, with colleges being criticized for the views of Ward Churchill (whose
views aren’t exactly mainstream even among the more liberal parts of academe),
for dissent on Iraq, for defending evolution, the issues being talked about
are much more central to many more people. “I really fear tolerance for free
speech and criticism is going to decline rapidly,” he says.
Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, says that at no point in his adult lifetime has he
seen attacks on science, and on the universities that perform science, that
are as serious as those today. While modern American history has had plenty of
“blips” in the relationship between science and religion, there is a
“substantial tension” today that is dangerous, Leshner says.
Welcome to the culture wars of 2005, where most of the fighting has not been
about great books or even multiculturalism, but about politics, terrorism, war
and peace, religion, God and evolution.
To recap some of the greatest hits.... The Churchill furor started in January.
Even though he has been a regular on the campus speaking circuit for years,
some critics of a planned talk at Hamilton College circulated copies of one of
his more inflammatory essays and all of the sudden everyone knew about him.
The Hamilton center that invited Churchill has now lost most of its budget
authority and Churchill faces an investigation in Colorado that may cost him
his tenure — not for his statements, but for alleged research misconduct that
As the Churchill controversy grew, three social scientists released a study
charging that academics leaned far to the left and that conservatives and
Christians had a hard time being hired as professors. That study was promptly
disputed by other scholars, who said it was simplistic and part of a well
financed conservative campaign to discredit academe.
The debates over Ward Churchill and professors’ political leanings were a
great platform for David Horowitz, the ’60s radical-turned-conservative
activist, who won hearings, a (non binding and watered down) place in the
current versions of the Higher Education Act, and a few legislative victories
for his “Academic Bill of Rights,” which he said protected students, and which
many faculty members said was designed to take away their freedom of
expression. Horowitz told anyone who would listen about cases in which
students were punished for, to cite one of his favorite examples, defending
President Bush — although some of his examples didn’t exactly check out.
As the year went on, Christian schools sued the University of California for
not counting high school courses based on creationism or intelligent design as
biology, the university’s Berkeley campus was sued because it maintains a Web
site to help teachers understand evolution, the University of Kansas found
itself first announcing and then withdrawing a course on intelligent design
amid criticism about a professor who mocked fundamentalists and Roman
Catholics, and many Dartmouth College students were offended by a convocation
speech about Jesus.
As 2005 drew to a close, a professor sued Indiana University of Pennsylvania
after he was denied tenure, he says, for maintaining a death count on the war
in Iraq, and an adjunct quit suddenly at Warren County Community College, in
New Jersey, amid a flap over harsh anti-war statements he made in an e-mail
message to a student.
So how do all of these incidents — and numerous others — define the culture
wars of 2005?
Gregory S. Jay, director of the Cultures and Communities Program at the
University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, says that he believes the last big round
of the culture wars about higher education raged in the 1980s and early ’90s —
when critics like William Bennett and Lynne V. Cheney regularly gave talks
blasting colleges for their curriculums. “I think that attempt by
conservatives ended in part because of the structural protections that many
academics have in tenure,” Jay says.
As a result, he argues, conservatives attacked higher education indirectly in
the ’90s and the first part of this decade through “defunding” public colleges
and creating an economic situation where the proportion of tenure-track
positions declined. So now, as cultural attacks on colleges are renewed, Jay
says, academe finds itself with a less secure financial base and many
professors don’t have any meaningful job security.
Others see what is going on now as but the latest sign of a conflict that is
centuries old. James Davison Hunter, who teaches sociology and religious
studies at the University of Virginia, says that “this kind of conflict is
always just beneath the surface of public life and is driven by competing
visions of a good society.”
Hunter, author of Culture Wars: the Struggle to Define America and Before the
Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War, traces the
splits over academe (and society broadly) back to Europe, to the philosophes
of the Enlightenment and the clerics of the ancien regime. “This isn’t driven
by issues,” he says. “Issues like intelligent design and the war are
manifestations of this deeper debate.”
Still others see the serious issues in the country — such as terrorism and the
war in Iraq — as being responsible for much of the ideological debate today,
although people arrive at that conclusion in different ways.
Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University
Professors, says that when things aren’t going well for conservatives — say a
war without victory in sight, a deficit increasing at shocking rates,
indictments of prominent Republicans — higher education is a useful whipping boy.
“As a way of deflecting attention from real problems, cultural warriors look
to the universities, which are staffed by free-thinking people, and people who
are willing to say that the emperor is naked, and attack. It allows them to
stay on the offensive,” Bowen says. Since conservatives now control the White
House, both houses of Congress, and the courts, they have a more difficult
time explaining away the flaws in the country, he asserts.
“Look at the historical anti-intellectualism in America and the mistrust of
the academy, and we are an easy target,” he says.
Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni sees the impact of
terrorism and war in a different way. She notes that Ward Churchill was saying
“outrageous things” before September 11 and yet the public never noticed.
While Neal says that professors “have a right to express their views, however
ludicrous they may be,” she says it’s also appropriate to counter those views
and to ask whether only certain sets of views are presented to students.
In the wake of 9/11, with a war going on, and people more concerned about
terrorism generally, she says, there may be more willingness to challenge
professors. “I think that when it’s a matter of life and death, people tend to
look at a topic in a different way. Certainly Ward Churchill got more
attention in light of 9/11 and succeeding events than he would have
otherwise,” Neal says. “What’s happened is that if faculty were saying
outrageous things in the past, perhaps we didn’t notice it.”
If the war and 9/11 are relatively recent, some of the issues that are now in
the forefront of attention — God and evolution — are hardly recent
developments. So why are so many religious leaders questioning science and
research universities right now, prompting some researchers to become harshly
critical of the activities of some religious groups?
Robert C. Andringa, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and
Universities, says that the growing divide between religious America and
researchers in America shouldn’t be happening. “For much of history, science
has been carried out enthusiastically by people of faith,” he says. Those who
suggest that one must make a choice between science and religion are creating
“an ill-conceived, arbitrary and unfortunate separation.”
Andringa says that there are people in the churches and in the academy who are
“As a person who takes my faith seriously, I am appalled sometimes at the
insensitive, aggressive and disrespectful way in which some in the religious
right express their opposition to those who differ. I don’t think that’s the
model of Christ, and I think we are called actually in the Bible to be
ministers of reconciliation, to think more highly of others than ourselves, to
turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, and some of these good lessons are
sadly lost on some people who are engaging in these culture wars,” he says.
At the same time, he adds that “there is a perception and unfortunately I
think it’s accurate in many cases that intellectuals today are advocates of
diversity until it comes to religion,” and that academe — including secular
academe — needs to give more thoughtful consideration to religious issues. “To
be intellectually honest, one has to look at the world, and say a majority of
the people of the world are religious. how can we carry on the work of the
academy without trying to understand that world?” he says.
Leshner, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, echoes
Andringa, noting that most religious people have no trouble with science and
that many scientists take faith seriously. He would like people to see science
and religion as “different,” but not competing, domains.
Some of the tensions around science today — such as those involving stem cell
research — reflect relatively recent scientific advances. But Leshner says
flatly that he does not know why evolution has come under such attack now. He
says that university scientists “have a tremendous need for engagement” with
religious groups of all denominations to repair the damage that is going on
now, but he adds that “most people don’t know how to go about having that
The impact of the intensified culture wars is negative in many ways, scholars
say. Bowen of the AAUP says that academics nationwide are being smeared when
people like Kimball imply that a Ward Churchill reflects the views of many
professors. “I wouldn’t call Churchill a liberal academic. I’d call him an
extremist, just as I think Horowitz is an extremist. They both use inflated
language and see a lot of conspiracies. It’s unfortunate,” Bowen says.
He adds that this kind of smearing has an impact, with a declining respect for
professors making it possible for legislators to ignore important needs in
higher education and to question tenure.
Bowen also says that many people who are attacked find themselves unable to
fight back. The professor at Warren County Community College, for example, had
what many considered to be a good defense. While the e-mail he sent might have
appeared rude if he had known he was sending it to a student, he thought he
was sending it to an activist with a national conservative organization and
not to a student. That defense never was heard by most people, Bowen says,
because the professor was an adjunct and didn’t have the means to fight.
“I think there is greater vulnerability in that the poor fellow in New Jersey
was a contingent faculty — part time. He didn’t have any protection,” Bowen
says. And most administrators feel that they can’t afford a controversy.
“There is an automatic fear that if there is controversy on our campus, I may
lose support of administrators and legislators,” he says.
Jay says that periods like the one academe is in now encourage professors —
especially those without tenure — to keep quiet. “I think we’ve
institutionalized a certain self-censorship in the academy. I think people are
more careful about what they say,” he says, especially with so few people
getting a shot at tenure. “Tenure and promotion committees are still feared,
and people look at what’s going on and don’t want to give the other side
“I see real regression on many issues,” Jay says, and for all the complaints
about liberal academe, “I see a more conservative climate than we had 10 years
To get out of the current situation, some say that colleges need to take more
of a role in not just being a place for people to express opinions of all
types, but in shaping debates. Andringa of the Christian colleges group says
that he thinks about this issue a lot because his membership — while thought
of by many academics as conservative — includes colleges affiliated with
pacifist faiths that find themselves dissenters about the war in Iraq.
Colleges generally have people who dissent from popular views, he says, but
too frequently, the public hears only the dissent and only the more extreme
“It seems to me that any educational institution in any community should say,
‘We are the ones who foster dialogue over tough issues, so we are going to be
very thoughtful in how we create forums for both sides, for all sides,’” he
says. If colleges more actively created such forums, he says, people might not
associate colleges with just one point of view and — perhaps more importantly
— people would leave such forums with new ideas to think about.
But Andringa says he sees few colleges doing this. “I think the vocal anti-war
faculty find their own platforms with blogs or classrooms or columns in the
local paper, which may give a bad rap to the whole institution,” he says. “Why
should a university depend on rallies organized by one side or another rather
than having a president say, ‘This is one of the big issues of our time, so
let’s discuss it.’ “
Others agree, and many educators say that the solution is more civility and
more of an attempt to find reasoned middle ground on tough issues. But while
no academics are coming out against civility, some worry that calls for
reasoned debate can also be a way of encouraging a blandness of opinion and
take away the role of academics in raising tough issues that others might ignore.
Nelson of Illinois, author of Manifesto of a Tenured Radical and other books
about higher education, says that in times like these, many people — including
many faculty members — want professors to speak with “sweet reasonableness.”
But such an approach limits the role of professors, he says. In the classroom,
he says, professors frequently “take an outrageous position to get people
talking,” and such a technique works. Faculty members who want to be public
intellectuals shouldn’t be afraid to do the same thing, he says.
“I think there is utility to public statements that are sometimes surreal and
outrageous,” he says. “Clearly debate can be provoked by statements and I’d to
think that faculty members can’t play the game of strategically offending
people. We do that in the classroom. Why can’t we use that in the public sphere?”