Allan Gribben as Job, Jeremiah and Jesus
Report from the NAS Conference
By Tom Philpott
November 1991; pages 3, 10-11; Volume 3, No. 2
Armed only with a tape recorder and a borrowed jacket and tie, I attended the National Association of Scholars' (NAS) annual conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota Oct.18-21. The conferences' speeches and seminars, predictably, were larded thickly with right-wing cant and cliché; the usual polemics against campus diversity, '"politicization," and radicalism abounded. Of most immediate interest to the UT community was the figure cut by former English professor Allan Gribben, self-styled victim of and crusader against the alleged "political correctness" movement reported to dominate campuses.
Indeed, the NAS showcased the wisdom and experience of Gribben, who resigned as a professor in UT's English department last fall after launching hysterical attacks against the proposed revision of English 306. Gribben, now chair of English and philosophy as an adjunct to Auburn University, is perhaps most notorious at UT for his letter to a wealthy alumnus at the height of the E 306 controversy that called for: (1) splitting the English department into two entities; (2) putting it into receivership indefinitely (to be run not out of the liberal arts college, but rather out of Provost Gerhard Fonken's office); and (3) "barring the accomplishment of these steps," the abolition of freshman and sophomore English. (See the September, 1990 Polemicist) He later defended this undeniably extreme prescription as "ingenious."
After "victory" in the E 306 battle, Gribben resigned his full professorship and accepted a paycut to work at Auburn, declaring he had been "driven out" of UT by the "whispers in the halls" of his fellow faculty. Such self-proclaimed martyrdom seems to have impressed the NAS, who allowed Gribben to lead two seminars at this year's conference: one entitled "Organizing the Academic Resistance," and another which focused on the need to start an alternative group to the Modern Languages Association.
Job Discovers Powerful Allies
The seminar on Academic Resistance, attended by some 40 professors, amounted to a lengthy Gribben screed on E 306 and his ensuing resignation from UT. Among the attendees were two of Gribben's former English department colleagues and fellow veterans of departmenial wars: professor Maxine Hairston and associate professor John Ruszkiewicz. In his talk, Gribben stumbled in and out of the roles of Job, and Jesus: here the hapless victim of mysterious forces, and now the triumphant savior of students and redeemer of the academic fallen. His style even invited a third biblical allusion: to the prophet Jeremiah. Indeed most of his presentation could properly be called a jeremiad, a long lament evocative of the one launched by Jeremiah in the old Testament.
Never in his spiel did he cogently define what he meant by the words "they" or "the opposition" - terms he used repeatedly - but his allies present knew what he meant: the African Americans, Marxists, feminists, gays and lesbians who in their eyes have committed a kind of putsch in today's academy. Gribben began by assessing the potential for alliance between "the academic resistance" and the following five groups - administrators, students, alumni, taxpayers, and politicians.
Administrators, according to Gribben, have the power to restrain reform movements - and can sometimes summon the power to use it. A self-proclaimed champion of academic freedom, Gribben opened his rant with the complaint that academic departments operate with "almost complete autonomy ," with "few checks and balances" from administrations that are "cowed by the presence of the AAUP [American Association of University Professors]" - a group that promotes academic freedom and has criticized UT's handling of E 306. But Gribben doesn't despair of this sorry state of affairs, because, he argues, "you should not give up on administrators ... they are relatively capable of courageous thinking." Gribben later revealed the source of this courage: When large alumni donors demand something, administrators are often only too happy to appease them.
Students are also useful allies because they have freedoms shared by neither administrators or faculty. He shifted into an apology for having involved students in the E 306 fight, something he was "loathe" to do and did only with "grave misgivings." (In the discussion following his talk Gribben ruminated darkly on the ethical implications of "using students," explaining that "the left always does it") He argued that "one almost has to give up on graduate students," because "only five or six registered rather tepid concern about this course out of 185 graduate students" in the English department. Note that it was the academic freedom of these same graduate students for which Gribben and his allies were allegedly fighting.
Undergraduates, however, are a different story. Despite his misgivings about enlisting them, Gribben reported that the student right played a crucial role in the E 306 victory, since "students can do things that faculty really can't," such as "say things about a person and express their opinions frankly."
The idea that tenured faculty can't "express their opinions frankly" is, of course, absurd; and Gribben and his allies expressed their opinions frankly indeed, calling the course "Marxism 306," declaring it an exercise in "thought control," to point out some of the more hysterical vitriol on their part. This, however, is Gribben warming up to the role of Job, mysteriously and spectacularly punished, a role we will see more of later.
Next, Gribben described the role of alumni in the battle, whose help he also enlisted "very reluctantly" (this claim despite his article in the Fall 1989 NAS journal Academic Questions, in which Gribben called for enlisting alumni in departmental battles). He said that he learned in the midst of the battle that UT receives only a third of its budget from the state, and gets a large portion of it from donations and corporate research grants. This epiphany helped him overcome his reluctance to deal with alumni, that crucial financial cash cow to the University, and, as he declared, "we were soon into this with alumni in full cry."
Gribben speculated that as a result of his taking the E 306 struggle to wealthy alums, "the forthcoming budget will reveal that the college [of liberal arts] was harmed in the long run by this dispute. Certainly a lot of alumni wrote me and called me and said, 'When they [the liberal arts college] contacted me this year, I told them, Not a dime, not a dime until there's an end to stuff like 306 and indoctrinating students, until professors like Allan Gribben, with very moderate politics who don't put their politics in the classroom anyway, can teach there again, not a dime.'" Here again is Gribben as Job, punished and scorned for his moderate views.
Gribben quickly dismissed the role of the taxpaying public, although taxpayers are "disgruntled and disgusted by what they read in Newsweek" about the academy - no surprise, since that magazine holds that a "New McCarthyism" has swept U.S. campuses, enforced by an unidentified band of retro-Stalinists hell-bent on mind control. Instead Gribben turned his attention directly to politicians, not as representatives but as lawmakers.
He said at the onset of the E 306 dispute he became "ravenous for information" on Thatcherite England, in which, he claims, "multicultural reform" within universities was "limited by political laws enacted against it." He restrained himself from calling for such a solution here, but opined that "there are voices, very intelligent voices in the academic community who think that this is never gonna stop until this goes to the state legislatures or maybe even the federal level."
He then proudly recounted his testimony before the Texas State Legislature last fall against legislation that would create multicultural requirements at UT system schools. He reported that he used E 306 as an example of what politicized horrors "they" would create with such requirements. (As an aside to this section of his talk, he reminded the audience that "although we were able to defeat this egregious course, I wasn't able to save myself, and after a four-year ostracism at the hands of students and faculty, I had to leave the school." As Job observed of God, "This is one thing, therefore I said it. He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked.")
In the Stacks or at the Stadium?
Gribben then shifted his discussion to "potential things" that his allies in the room "may need if you ever find yourself in a protracted struggle like the one we got into." First, he declared, a successful struggle would need one or two well-connected professors willing to "network" across departmental lines. He himself was woefully inadequate in that role, as he had spent his career "wandering the stacks in the libraries" and not politicking. (The image of Gribben as an innocent academic, his head in his books, drawn by his moral integrity into political wars, is essential to his image as principled martyr.)
Next, he returned to the subject of student groups, reiterating both his reluctance and his delight in working with them. "I hate," he declared, "to get into this business of using or seeming to use surrogates" to fight his battles. He explained that he had "shied away" from students mainly because "for four years they had been used against me." (Ah, Job again)
He mentioned in particular a student group "dedicated to individual rights and quality of education" - a reference either to the Young Conservatives of Texas or Students Advocating a Valid Education, two virulently rightest groups that supported Gribben's position - with whom he found himself "passing out flyers on Saturday morning at the state football stadium during homecoming, alerting parents to the dangers of E 306." This anecdote drew delighted if nervous titters from the academics present. He concluded that his student cohorts "had their priorities straight" and "proved to be invaluable allies."
Stressing the importance of having a "sympathetic voice" on the student newspaper and a "sympathetic or neutral" student government leader, he then complained bitterly about his own situation during the E 306 controversy, during which he felt haunted by UT's "very radical" student president and its "critical" newspaper editor. He didn't speculate how his fellow resistors at other campuses might plant sympathetic voices in these institutions, but the digression allowed him to express the anger he felt at the hands of leftist students and faculty, and his heroism in their ultimate defeat.
"For four years," he intoned with high seriousness, "a faction in my department and my department chair had hoped, I think, that I would be leaving and some people with various strategies really worked on me. I'd had enough. I couldn't bring that home to my family. Four years is a long time. But they had tangled with a guy who was never going to quit on E 306. To me that course epitomized the kind of thing that was underway in my department."
He went on to extoll his diligence and skill in working with the press during the controversy. He gleefully described the "funnelling process" for managing the press, wherein "you get little stories in the campus paper, the local paper, [and] they funnel into the state press and radio talk shows." "Where does it all lead," he wondered aloud triumphantly, "it all leads to television!" He boasted that "we got favorable stories out of reporters who were incredibly favorable to multiculturalism." He continued: "I think it baffled our opponents that we were able to land some of the stories we did ... if you polled our opponents, they would say that somehow the press was on our side. Believe me, it didn't just happen - we worked hard to cooperate." In fact, however, the most virulently pro-Gribben stories that he was able to "land" weren't baffling at all; they came from Dallas Morning News columnist William Murchison, who's on the payroll of the Heritage Foundation, a rightest think-tank that shares funding sources with the NAS.
At any rate, Gribben went on to announce that "the press is one of the best things this nation has going for it" since it "is coming to feel that they [sic] have a stake in this kind of fight on campus." He quoted an unnamed Dallas newspaper columnist saying "first the campus, then the news and editorial rooms of our newspapers" would fall under the iron jackboot of leftist thought control. "If they [presumably, left fascists] punch through the campus," Gribben assured his listeners, "the press knows what kind of graduates they will get and they're waking up."
The Tale of Woe
He then relapsed into complaint, lamenting bitterly and often cryptically about "leaks" to the press and the role they played in his persecution. "Be aware," he warned, "people who are of two minds, people sympathetic to the other side, can sit in on things and overhear things. Things have come to a point where this is not a children's game going on on campus." (He did not know that I was sitting quietly in the room taping his screed.)
He charged that "our opponents, especially the off-campus ones, used what could only be called a smear technique: questioning motives, questioning a person's personal record." The "off-campus" modifier is puzzling; as Gribben himself boasts, the loudest voices in the non-student media and the alumni - surely the only significant "off-campus" force in the dispute - sided with Gribben. His fiercest critics were squarely on-campus.
"You don't have to be conspiratorially minded," he then reasoned, "to know that a tightly knit group of new-age leftists [!] would love to have any information you can give them about your activities." This is perhaps a reference to Polemicist's obtaining under the Open Records Act a copy of the above-mentioned letter to an alum proposing radical surgery on the English department, disclosure of which isolated Gribben even among his staunchest allies. He then spoke in fearful, breathless tunes of "journals pulsing, waiting, itching, waiting for my picture to appear" - whatever that meant. "Some of my opponents," he concluded, "felt they were doing me a favor to let me walk the earth." To drive that point home, he then linked attacks from the vile UT left alternative press to a recent attempt on UT President "Dollar" Bill Cunningham's life, declaring "I think it may even be related to student left-wing targeting of him [Cunningham] in the same way" that those wild-eyed zealots targeted Gribben himself.
Now secure in his role of Job, he continued his tale of woe. "My opponents," he charged, "devised a divide-and-conquer strategy against me. I'd go into the mailroom and it was like floating on an iceberg. But John [Rusckiewicz], a UT English prof in attendance would say everyone is enormously cheerful in their greetings. It bends your mind after a while to deal with things like this ... Certain people who had shared my view point - I won't name any names - felt a warmer reception than they had in along time." Here we get to the heart of what "forced" Gribben out of UT: His colleagues apparently didn't like him. This is what's currently hailed in the national media as the "New McCarthyism," as opposed to the original brand, wherein hundreds of tenured professors were fired - not disliked - for politically incorrect beliefs.
This led to some banal advice: He urged his fellow "resisters" to have a "spouse to come home to" during protracted struggles, and to "get away on weekends" (which Gribben couldn't do because, he revealed, he "didn't have the money"). He then lapsed into a kind of despair about the future of today's academy: "I think it's all over to a certain extent. [Which is like declaring something "pretty unique."] They own the store. I think we need to devise ways to reorganize universities or start new universities." We invite Allen Gribben to join Liberated Learning. His seminar on Organizing the Academic Resistance would be well attended we're certain. But we might find we need to place strict limits on his departmental autonomy, a concept which we know be fully supports.
But his brief despair didn't preclude the idea of a saviour - one just man against the vulgar herd - who through the strength of his refusals and moral superiority could stem the awful tide. He reasoned that "even if we can't win in the immediate future, because the doctrines and their advocates have become too entrenched, we can still prevent a complete takeover." He then thundered, alluding to himself: "As long as there's one person who says, 'No! I dissent from that, let me show the press, let me show people what this amounts to, then they have not completely taken over the American academic world and [sic] lays the groundwork for some future liberation of the university.'" This is Gribben as Christ triumphant, martyring himself for the future good.
This led to a diatribe about how left-wing academics have "patiently spent more than a decade laying the groundwork for ... journals like Radical Teacher [!!] about how to introduce socialism in the classroom, [and] creating organizations and conferences," while the right has presumably, like Gribben, "wandered the library stacks." He said: "We shouldn't be expected overnight to seize that success from them: they have carefully laid the preparations for the successful coup that is now taking place."
This reflects ignorance, historical amnesia or outright deception. The current strand of conservatism activism on campus began in the '50s with the founding of Young Americans for Freedom and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, both formed by William F. Buckley's set and both flourishing in the '90s: and it resurged in the early and mid '80s with the birth of Accuracy in Academia, the Institute for Educational affairs, and the NAS itself, to name a few - all established groups well-funded by the same right-wing foundations. The obscure Radical Teacher and campus seminars on cultural studies don't quite compare.
Next, Gribben took predictable potshots against that "powerful combination, feminism and Marxism" and lambasted "leftists [who] are convinced that bonafide racists, sexists, and homophobics are nestled among our faculty, staff, and students: " (Where could they have possibly gotten that idea!) He then posited the idea that these deluded left activists, wilting under the cogent critique of the likes of Gribben, "are probably feeling what the corrupt church officials felt at the beginnings of the first stirrings of church reform toward the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. They tried to pound down the first reformers" - thus raising the amusing image of Gribben as Young Man Luther.
He then unequivocally declared victory in the E 306 case and urged his listeners, "If you prevail, say so. I did." He concluded by exhorting them to "keep your eye [sic] on the prize," and to "enjoy your links to the great resistance movements throughout history, [such as] people in the Eastern bloc ... who had the audacity to tell Russia, 'Enough! There are better ways.'"
Thus Gribben ended, to the thunderous applause of the rapt audience. The discussion afterwards showed that his listeners - and by extension, the NAS - took him quite seriously and planned to put his advice into practice. Like Job and Jesus before him, this unjustly punished man, this courageous crusader against injustice, seems to have found a kind of redemption and vindication at last.