E306: Chronicle of a Smear Campaign

How the New Right Attacks Diversity

By Scott Henson and Tom Philpott
September 1990; pages 4, 5, 7, 18; Volume 2, No. 1
Polemicist

When the University of Texas English department began the process of revising the syllabus for the required freshman writing class English 306 - basing the revised class on issues of "difference" - a few members of the faculty reacted with shrill cries of protest. Philosophy professor Dan Bonevac openly redbaited the class's advocates, declaring the course "Marxism 306" on a local TV show. Government professor Jay Budziszewski called the course "indoctrination in bigotry," and accused it of "serving the ends of hatred."

The class had been approved by the Lower Division English Policy Committee as well as by Liberal Arts Dean Standish Meacham, and was scheduled to begin in the fall. But then, under pressure from President Bill Cunningham and Provost Gerhard Fonken, Dean Meacham postponed the new curriculum for a year, leaving the course without a syllabus four weeks before it was to begin.

Heresy in the Classroom

What heresies had the English department concocted to impose upon the youthful minds of incoming freshmen? Under the new syllabus, the course would consist of readings from Federal and Supreme Court decisions concerning various civil rights cases, notably "Sweatt vs. Painter," which resulted in the admission of UT's first African American student.

Using majority opinions, dissenting opinions, and arguments from both plaintiffs and defendants, the course would require students to form opinions and support their arguments with evidence using the legal texts to back up their claims. But English prof. Alan Gribben, the course's loudest critic, calls that "thought control."

Restrictive learning

The prevailing myth, popularized by Gribben's and others' declarations that the course was rushed through "hastily," assumes that the course was designed in response to demonstrations last spring led by the Black Student Alliance (BSA) calling for the creation of a more diverse curriculum. Actually, the planning for the revised E 306 began last fall.

In May after the committee had approved the class's texts, Brodkey created an ad hoc committee composed of four professors and eight graduate students (grad students teach E 306) to write the syllabus. By mid-June, according to Brodkey, it became clear that one of the texts the committee approved, Paula Rothenberg's Racism and Sexism, was unsuitable for the format of the new E 306. Already under pressure from right-wing attacks in the media, Brodkey and Kruppa dropped the textbook. Dean Meacham provided her and a graduate student funds to expand a supplementary packet in lieu of the book.

On July 9, about three weeks after the book was dropped, the two committee members who didn't support the change, John Ruszkiewicz and James Duban, send Brodkey a letter saying "all members of the LDEPC should be kept current about materials being considered for this expanded packet." They concluded by stating, "We hope that you'll keep us informed." The following day Brodkey responded with a short memo thanking them for their concern and telling them that "I plan to keep the members of the Lower Division English Policy Committee informed."

Ruszkiewicz and Duban claim that their letter was a specific request for information on the expanded packet. Brodkey, who hadn't yet finished compiling the packet, didn't take it as a request. She says the information was available if they had bothered to call or come to her office and look at it.

Without contacting Brodkey beforehand or making any further attempts to review the expanded packet, Duban and Ruszkiewicz resigned from the committee the next day. Duban charged Brodkey with "secrecy." Despite the ambiguity of his and Ruszkiewicz's letter, Duban told The Texan that "I resigned because after seeking specific information from the chair of that committee about the packet ... I did not receive a satisfactory response."

The Backlash

This charge of secrecy fueled the already growing right-wing attack on the course, which held that Brodkey's alleged obfuscations betrayed an overt political agenda. Ruszkiewicz himself added to this hysteria in a July 24 Texan guest column in which he declared that "the E 306 curriculum changes were compromised by their ideological freight and by a rush to do what seemed politically correct on this campus at the moment." Ruszkiewicz failed to show how the opinions of the Supreme Court judges and lawyers would constitute any "ideological freight" that would conflict with mainstream sensibilities.

While Ruszkiewicz and Duban did raise some pedagogical concerns, their allies in the battle focused solely on politics. Ruszkiewicz acknowledges that the "core" of the opposition to the course came from the Texas Association of Scholars, a local chapter funded by a national right-wing faculty group, the National Association of Scholars (see sidebar). The NAS receives much of its funding from the John M. Olin and Sarah Scaife foundations, which subsidize New Right groups including the Heritage Foundation, Freedom House, the Committee on the Present Danger and Accuracy in Media.

The Nation and The New York Times reported that at its first national conference in 1988, an NAS crowd of 300 cheered when Alan Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, advised his colleagues to "use ridicule" to combat African-American, gay and feminist activists. When a UT faculty member contacted the NAS for information, a representative bragged to him that recently "our Texas chapter helped to defeat, er, postpone an English course" at UT.

The TAS collected 56 faculty signatures - only 7 from the English department - on a "Statement of Academic Concern" attacking the revised course. The statement continued the ongoing smear campaign against E 306. It falsely declared that the title of the course would change from "Rhetoric and Composition" to "Difference - Racism and Sexism." It went on to perpetuate the mis-representations of the class as indoctrination, claiming the course would only teach a "single hegemonic view."

The statement was published as an advertisement in The Daily Texan. TAS collected funds for the ad and cut the check, yet its name appeared nowhere on the the ad.

When contacted later, the majority of the faculty we talked to who signed the ad weren't associate with TAS, and non-members weren't told that TAS had coordinated the effort. Clarke Burnham of the Psychology department, for example, is not a TAS member, was not aware of TAS's involvement and had never even heard of the national organization. Karl Galinsky, former chair of the Classics department, is actually a member of the National Association of Scholars - but wasn't aware of the existence of TAS, much less that it had sponsored the ad.

A Man With a Plan

In an article in the fall 1989 edition of the NAS journal Academic Questions called "English Departments: Salvaging What Remains," Alan Gribben lays out a 10-point strategy for "salvaging the remnants of the discipline of English."

He sets up a specious dichotomy in English departments between "pluralists" (in whose number he counts himself) and "neo-Marxists." Of the struggle between the two, he declares that the "prizes for the victors will be nothing less than the minds and emotions of an entire generation of undergraduate students." He laments that the struggle "has already cost us most of the current generation of graduate students," and vows to fight this trend. (This proprietary attitude toward the "mind and emotions" of students comes from a man who called the revised E 306 the "most massive attempt at thought control ever attempted on campus.")

Gribben writes that "the American public is overwhelmingly on our side in this struggle." And since "neo-Marxists" control the unviersity, it's necessary for "pluralist" academics like himself to take the "struggle" outside the academy to the public. When that happens, he writes, "we can expect a gasp of indignation." He declares that professors "who would oppose the takeover of our discipline" must "Organize or Retire."

It was in this spirit that Gribben took the battle for E 306 to the state media and directly to UT alumni. He published diatribes against the class in the statewide press. Anne Blakeney, a member of the Liberal Arts Foundation Council - a alumni group, most of whom donate at least $1,000 per year to the Liberal Arts college - read a Gribben polemic in the Dallas Morning News and wrote him requesting more information. His response obtained from Dean Meacham's office through the Texas Open Records Act reveals an agenda that the TAS forgot to mention in its "Statement of Academic Concern."

Gribben writes gravely in his July 9 letter of an English department under "domination by a highly politicized faction of radical literary theorists." He issues the following prescription: 1) that "the English department shoud be placed in receivership indefinitely ... and then be governed by a new English Chairman appointed directly Gerhard Fonken, Executive Vice President and Provost;" 2) "during this period of receivership the department's faculty should be divided into a Department of Critical Theory and Cultural Studies and a Department of English Literature and Language;" and 3) "barring the accomplishment of these steps, the two university-wide required English courses (E 306 and E 316K) should be abolished, thus ending the necessity of hiring additional English professors at the rate they have been recruited for the past decade from the most radicalized (but prestigious) graduate programs across the nations [sic]."

Gribben then hints that even those rather drastic measures won't remedy the situation unless Dean Meacham, a supporter of cultural inclusiveness in the classroom, is removed. "Most vital of all," he declares, "will be a comprehending College of Liberal Arts Dean with nerve and a determination to oversee the recruiting policies and decisions of the English department, which has lost all sense of tradition, direction, civility, and academic freedom in the classroom."

Gribben's letter also alludes to Blakeney's "offer of assistance in my effort to halt the new E. 306 course, reform my out-of-control department, and rescue my academic career at U.T." And Gribben makes a muted plea for help from other members of the Council. He writes: "only members of the Liberal Arts Foundation Council actually understand how the University operates and what it will take to effect any significant improvement in the English department situation."

Blakeney responded to the plea by writing a letter to the president of the Liberal Arts Advisory Council, Drew Cauthorn, urging him to take seriously Gribben's wild-eyed complaints. The undated letter, obtained from Meacham's files under the Open Records Act, argues that "the state of the English department and the subject of multiculturalism ... must be discussed further and in some way resolved" by the Advisory Foundation at a meeting scheduled for this fall. She goes on to write that "since Standish Meacham is the point man for multiculturalism in the college, we need to be informed of views balancing his in order to see the whole picture." The man to provide that balancing view, she continues, is none other than Alan Gribben - who by that time still hadn't so much as asked to see the readings, much less the syllabus for the E 306 course.

To his credit, Cauthorn replied in a letter to Blakeney, dated July 31, that the Foundation had no business intervening in departmental affairs. He asked her to pursue her agenda in an "individual capacity and not as a member of the Foundation," thus squashing Blakeney's and Gribben's hope that this particular group of large donors could as an institution dictate English department policy.

The politics of Jim Duban

Incredibly, even after the details of Gribben's letter and tactics had been revealed, James Duban still insisted that the opposition to the course had been pedagogical, not political. And when asked in an interview whether he thought Bonevac ("Marxism 306") or Budziszewski ("serving the ends of hatred") had misrepresented to course's content, he declined to distance himself from either statement.

He presented himself in public as an intellectual above the fray, concerned only with the students who would be victimized by discussing issues of difference instead of only writing mechanics in a composition course. He complained bitterly in a Texan column that the revised course would have foresaken the goal of teaching students to write, despite the fact that every graded assignment in the class would still be a writing assignment. He called for the use of a 56-point check list of what makes good writing, ignoring that in any class students would still have to write about something. But his actions before and after the postponement reveal a man as versed in the methods of hard-ball poltics as writing pedagogy.

When faculty supporters of the course drafted a ltter to The Texan to "deplore te unprofessional manner in which opponents of the new syllabus for E306 misrepresented the substance and aims of the course," Duban threatened at least one member of the English faculty - lecturer Sue Heinzelman - with a libel suit if she signed it. He added that he would sue anyone else who signed the petition as well.

Susan Heinzelman says Duban's actions constitute "sexual harassment." "When a professor calls up an untenured lecturer who's a woman at 11 o'clock on a Friday night and threatens her with a libel suit, that's sexual harassement," she explained.

Duban's attempt at intimidation failed - Heinzelman, along with 42 others, eventually signed the letter. It appeared in the August 10 Daily Texan, although with the word "unprofessional" omitted. Duban has yet to make good on his threats - when he consulted an attorney about suing, he was rightfully told that he had no grounds for a legal action. Interestingly, Duban admitted to Polemicist that he had threatened Heinzelman, but when a Texan reporter questioned him on the subject, Duban, the champion of academic integrity, denied it.

Also in conflict with his disinterested, apolitical public prose, Duban apparently offered to travel around the state to present "informed views" on multiculturalism in the English department in general and the revised E306 in particular. Anne Blakeney, in her letter to Cauthorn, names Duban as one of the professors who, along with Gribben, offered to "travel to different cities to address members of the Council" on the evils of the proposed E 306 reforms. Clearly, his offer to join Alan Gribben on a state-wide series of meetings with major alumni donors - to enlist their support in thwarting cultural inclusiveness in the English department - more than qualifies as a political act.

Cunningham enters the fray early

UT faculty speculate that alumni pressure inspired by such outbursts caused President Cunningham and Provost Fonken to undermine the course. Just before presstime, Polemicist discovered evidence that place Cunningham's decision to cancel the class sometime between July 9 and July 11 - more than a week before either Brodkey or English department chair Kruppa had heard of the postponement of the course. In a handwritten letter to Cunningham received in his office on July 9 and acquired by Polemicist under the Open Records Act, a Dallas woman named Banett Valenta pleaded with Cunningham to stop the implementation of E 306. At the bottom of the letter, presumably in Cunningham's handwriting, the following was scrawled: "Send her a thank you note. Tell her that the English Department has decided [illegible] rethink their decision and that the course will not be modified this fall." A brief letter to Valenta dated July 11, signed by Cunningham, states: "After careful consideration, the Department has decided that the course will not be modified this fall." Kruppa, in a Sept. 1 phone interview, expressed surprise that the department he runs had cancelled the course modifications by July 11. He had left for vacaction on July 10. In fact, the department itself didn't make the decision to postpone the class - Kruppa was informed of the decision on July 20, at a meeting with Provost Gerhard Fonken and Meacham. Dean Meacham, who officially made the decision to postpone the course but not until July 21, said in a Sept. 3 interview that he was "very surprised" to hear of Cunningham's assertion in the Valenta letter.

With Kruppa still on vacation on July 18, The Texan published the Statement of Academic Concern. On July 19 Cunningham faxed a short letter - obtained by Polemicist under the Open Records Act - accompanied by only a copy of the Statement of Concern to Board of Regents chair Louis Beecherl. The letter, signed "Bill," said Cunningham would call Beecherl after the latter had had a chance to "review" the document.

The following day July 20 Provost Fonken met with Kruppa and Meacham to discuss cancelling the course. Kruppa says Cunningham met with the two that Saturday July 21 to finalize the cancellation of the new syllabus. Brodkey was told on Sunday, the day before the public was told July 23.

In a Sept. 1 phone conversation, Cunningham would not confirm or deny that he had decided to cancel the course by July 11. He also refused to meet with the editors to review the documents. We confronted Cunningham with the startling Valenta correspondence, and the following exchange took place:

Cunningham: "That doesn't sound accurate to me. I'd have to look at them [the letters]."

Polemicist: But we have the dated documents with your signature, and we want you to confirm or deny ... Could we set up a meeting this weekend to show you the letters?"

C: "No. Just drop them by the office."

P:"But we go to press Tuesday."

C: "Just run it then."

P: "Just run it?"

C: "Yeah, just run it. You've never let the truth get in your way before."

We asked Cunningham to cite specific examples of inaccuracies in our coverage, but he declined. Then we invited him to write a letter to the editor outlining any factual errors, but he quickly hung up.

At any rate, whether due to alumni pressure, ideology or some other reason, as English professors Ramon Saldivar and Kurt Heinzelman wrote in the 7-31 Texan, "something induced [Cunningham and Fonken] to short-circuit not only E 306 but also the normal process of scholarly inquiry and skeptical analysis of the data" concerning this course.

In doing so, the UT administration caved to the tactics of a right-wing pressure group at the expense of departmental autonomy and academic freedom, not to mention all the students who would have taken the course.