Indiana handed Donald J. Trump the GOP nomination for the presidency, the rust belt Midwest gave him the job and Indiana is the beating heart of that territory. Indiana is Trump country. So if you are a small, private (with one hell of a basketball program) university situated just a couple of miles from the state capital building (you know, where Trump’s Vice President worked just before this job) and you want to create a stink, you release your fall course catalog and have it contain a course entitled “Trumpism and U.S. Democracy” and have the course description proclaim that it will offer “strategies for resistance.” Sure, if you’re on the liberal east coast or the manically liberal west coast such things would go unremarked upon, but not in Indiana.
And yet the ol’ Alma mater, Butler University, did just that this week. Did not take long for that to make big news. Please note – one of those links is to a national news story – there is nothing a true Hoosier hates more than making controversial news. They want to see Indiana in the national news for basketball, racing, gorgeous fall foliage, and a great place to raise a family – but as the religious freedom furor of a few years ago proved, Hoosiers hate political controversy. So unlike those elite institutions of the coasts which shrug their shoulders when awful stuff happens, Butler reacted and reacted quickly.
The same day the story broke – in other words within the same news cycle – the course description had been changed and an email (to which I cannot find a link – though it was fairly widely disseminated) came from the Provost’s office describing the change:
As a result of the recent media coverage, the University has been the recipient of numerous concerns about the course. The concerns have been two-fold: perceptions that it takes a critical approach to the Trump presidency; and perceptions that it requires students to participate in resistance.
The former concern—that the course adopts a stance critical of Trump—is one that falls under the auspices of academic freedom. Just as I support this course, I would support a course that is complimentary of the President. Butler offers a variety of courses that tackle controversial topics. Like any University, Butler should—and does—promote an environment of critical inquiry and engagement on controversial and unpopular topics.
The latter concern—the perception that students are required to participate in activism—is more problematic. The University would not require a student to support or oppose a particular political figure or agenda. The professor has been very transparent about the goals of the course and has provided additional context that clarifies students in the class will not be required to participate in a particular form of activism.
The next morning, the head of the College Republicans chapter on campus appeared on Fox and while making it clear he disagreed with the prof, also made it clear that Butler was not the kind of place with an oppressively liberal atmosphere. Also the next day an email went out from the president of the university, very publicly, clarifying further Butler’s stance in these situations. For now, the problem appears to be solved. The only remaining question is whether the prof will actually abide by the rectified course description or whether the whole thing is only window dressing. If the current student body at Butler is anything like it was when I was a student there, conservatives are going to sign up for the class just to hold the prof accountable.
During my day one of the philosophy profs hijacked the standard “Philosophy of Religion 101” course for a semester to polish a manuscript he was completing in which, true to his devoted atheism, he purported to refute all of CS Lewis’ apologetic arguments. Myself and a few friends, all Lewis devotees, took the course in part because it fulfilled a core requirement and we had already read the entire course syllabus making it an easy class – but also simply to enjoy the argument. And we did. In several cases the prof actually altered the manuscript based on classroom discussion – a massive source of pride to a 19 yr old shooting from the hip in a “muff” course. It was what a university is supposed to be all about. I never convinced the prof to change his mind about anything significant – in point of fact he self-published a revised edition of the book on Amazon recently – but there was freedom to disagree and argue – and there was mutual respect. And based on reactions to date, it sounds like this is still the kind of atmosphere that Butler is trying to maintain these several decades later.
It is really a shame the elite coastal institutions cannot seem to figure this out – protests, riots, vandalism and property destruction are not the stuff of the university. There are big lessons here in managing the news cycle and the alums who responded rather vociferously when the story broke. But more importantly there are lessons about what a university is supposed to be and how to go about maintaining that. There are a lot of far more prestigious institutions that ought to be taking notes right now.