Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

SEX AND LIBERALISM: THE CU-BOULDER CONNECTION

Bill Owens is shocked. Shocked. Sex-for-recruiting in the CU Athletic Department? The governor has mounted his white horse of virtue, pledging to stamp out such moral nastiness. Meanwhile, state legislators are mounting their white horses, racing to be the first to stamp out excessive "liberalism" in the CU-Boulder faculty.

Sex and liberalism on the Boulder campus. What a bonanza for the news media. Everyone plays their appointed roles in the drama. Everyone strikes the proper pose for the cameras and reporters. Everyone demands "the facts."

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut "facts." Suppose some recruits were taken to parties where some of them had sex. Suppose the coach heard vague rumors about it and said, "Oh, thatís not right." Is the University guilty of wrongdoing? Depends on how you look at it.

Thatís a plausible scenario. Like every major football school, CU has a big network of "boosters." University officials and coaches donít have to arrange or condone anything. Itís all so well organized from outside the University, it just runs by itself, like a well-oiled machine.

Outside the University. Thatís where the problem is. If "the team" is winning, wealthy fat cats give more to CU. Corporate executives rent sky boxes at exorbitant rates. Manufacturers like Nike and Reebok pay big bucks to use the CU logo.

And if "the team" is winning, state officials, from the governor on down, support the University more generously. I donít blame these state officials. Itís a democracy. Their job is to represent the values of their constituents. The people of Colorado may not know, or care, if we have the best physicists or philosophers. But they know and care if "the team" is winning.

For the governor now to get on his high self-righteous horse is rank hypocrisy. He knows the pressures on "the team." He knows that most Americans, and most American politicians, measure a university by its sports success. And he should know, better than most, how little value is placed on education. During his years in office, state support for higher ed has been even worse than before (and we didnít think it could get any worse).

Bill Owens should certainly know how little value Colorado places on liberal education. His appointees to the Colorado Commission for Higher Education have hampered all sorts of efforts to boost the quality of liberal education. But what would you expect from conservatives?

Which brings us to the charge that there are too many liberal professors trampling the rights of conservative students. Here, too, there are no clear-cut "facts." How do you know when a professor is too liberal or too conservative? When is a classroom atmosphere "hostile"? When is a professorís stray remark too "political"? It all depends on how you look at it.

Conservatives hate such ambiguity. Thatís why they are so suspicious of higher education. It is rather amusing to hear demands for "a variety of viewpoints" from these champions of absolute right against absolute wrong.

In the last quarter-century, they have managed to impose their absolute "right" on nearly every major institution in our society. What used to be considered lunatic-fringe right is now respectable conservative. What used to be conservative is now moderate. What used to be moderate is now liberal. Thatís why they think there are so many "liberal" professors. In fact, the CU faculty, like most faculties, is packed with moderates.

But thatís not good enough for the once-lunatic-fringe right. They see one remaining institution that they canít control, and it drives them crazy. So they want to pass a law to tell me what I can or cannot say in my classroomóand word it so vaguely that they can easily charge me with breaking the law.

I think I know what drives these conservatives. They start from the premise that life is always a contest. Itís all about looking out for Number One, and being Number One. The urge to compete and win is at the core of human nature, they say. So all the worldís a battle field, with no gray areas or compromises allowed. Naturally, they plan to win every battle, whether itís in the field of academia or on Folsom Field.

It is no accident that the conservative worldview was best summed up by a famous football coach: "Winning isnít everything. Itís the only thing." In a society and a state so dominated by conservatives, it makes sense to measure a university by the success of its football team.

The pressure to recruit the very best athletes and the pressure to shift the faculty toward the "right" political ideology both come from the same conservative drive to win every time. If thatís the value system the people of Colorado want in their university, in the classroom and on the football field, that is their privilege. But at least letís be honest about whatís happening here.


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