Let Your Light Shine: My Year As the Visiting Scholar of Conservative Thought at the University of Colorado

A little over four years ago the University of Colorado, Boulder began a three-year pilot program that I believe has no precedent in American higher education. With the help of private donors, and the support of the university’s board, president, and chancellor, the school created the position of Visiting Scholar of Conservative Thought and Policy.

According to its supporters, the chair’s purpose is to advance that type of diversity—political and ideological diversity—that seems a natural fit for a public academic institution that has the motto, “Let Your Light Shine.”

With its fifth year beginning in the fall of 2017, it is safe to say that this is no longer a pilot program, but a permanent fixture of the university. I was honored to have served as the 2016-17 occupant of the chair, which is a full-time faculty appointment with a regular 2-2 course load.

With all my grades now turned in, I’d like to offer some reflections on my time in Boulder.

Having taught full-time for seven years at a large public university (UNLV, 1989-1996), I was delighted to be returning to a similar sort of institution. I look back fondly on those UNLV days because, as one of the few self-identified conservatives on campus, I felt I had a special obligation to represent my tribe with not only careful scholarship and good teaching, but with a public persona that exuded the joy that was in my heart. I really love being a professor, and that has nothing to do with my politics.

I found myself with the same sense of mission and determination when my wife and I arrived in Boulder last August.

In the fall, I team-taught the course “Thomas Aquinas” with philosophy professor Robert Pasnau, one of the world’s leading Aquinas scholars. As I told Bob when he invited me to team-teach with him, “You know, you’re the Aquinas scholar; I’m just the Thomist.” He responded, “But you have skin in the game.”

The class went marvelously. I lectured on the aspects of Aquinas’ philosophy I knew best and that I’ve taught before—on God and the nature of law—while Bob focused on Aquinas’ views on human nature, free will, and right and wrong action.

The other fall course I taught was “Philosophy and Religion” (which I also taught in the spring). Offered in the philosophy department, this course dealt with philosophical issues in religion, such as the concept and existence of God, the relationship between faith and reason, miracles, God and ethics, and the problem of evil.

Because I do not often teach this at Baylor, it was exciting to get back to those issues that originally drew me to philosophy. What amazed me was how interested the students were on the topics we covered in class, especially in comparison to my Baylor students, virtually all of whom would identify themselves as serious Christians. My guess is that because CU is a public university—and thus unlike Baylor does not require its students to attend chapel and take six credits of theology in order to graduate—the issues we discussed were new to many of my students.

My other spring course, “Religion and the Constitution,” was offered in the political science department. A constitutional law class focusing on religion cases, most of the students were pre-law political science majors.

Of all my CU classes, this one had the most enthusiastic participants.

Although there were many interesting exchanges, one in particular stands out. It involved the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. While I was trying to delicately explain to the students the four types of birth control to which Hobby Lobby objected and that the Secretary of Health and Human Services had mandated the company purchase for employees who wanted them, a young lady in the front row raised her hand and interceded.

After announcing to the class that she was at that very moment wearing an IUD—one of the birth control methods in question—she proceeded to explain precisely how it functioned. While she was speaking, I began to consider what I should say in response to her personal disclosure.

I concluded that I should say nothing except, “Thank you,” and then go on to ask if any other students wanted to contribute to the discussion. For I thought to myself, “What if it were the other way around? What if I were a very liberal, perhaps irreligious, professor, and one of my students—let’s say, a devout Evangelical Christian—boldly announced his personal faith to the class and went on to explain the theological reasons why his brethren at Hobby Lobby hold the views that they do?

Would it be right for me to respond by saying, “Sorry, that’s too much information”?

The answer is obvious. If you want a classroom where students can speak freely about the topics under discussion—a place in which we can with integrity assess dangerous ideas—then you cannot be a helicopter professor, whether you’re a liberal, conservative, or something in-between.

Three days after the final exam, I was so pleased to receive this message from one of the students in that class: “I have never seen a class in which the students spoke more freely. They (we) truly felt their ideas were welcomed and matter.”

In addition to teaching, the visiting scholar’s position comes with other responsibilities: (1) inviting guest speakers to campus, and (2) accepting as many invitations as possible to speak to local civic, political, and religious groups.

Concerning the first, I decided to invite speakers who touched on cultural themes that are rarely entertained in a serious fashion by the popular conservative television-radio media complex (which, for most people, especially in the academy, represents the essence of conservatism).

So, in the fall I brought George Yancey (University of North Texas) and Patrick Deneen (University of Notre Dame) to campus. Yancey spoke on “Conservatives in Academia: Is There Bias Against Them?,” while Deneen gave a talk on “The End of Liberalism: Why the World is Falling Apart.”

In the spring, the university hosted lectures by Elizabeth Corey (Baylor University), who spoke on “Can Conservatives Support Diversity?,” and author Rod Dreher, who discussed his New York Times bestseller, The Benedict Option.

I am happy to report that the lectures were well-attended and that there were none of the disturbances or protests that we’ve seen on other campuses throughout the U.S. over the past few years. Audience members asked probing questions, but they were clearly offered in a spirit of inquiry and truth-seeking, even when it was obvious that the questioner strongly disagreed with the speaker. That’s the sort of critical dialogue that many of us—regardless of our political views—believe to be integral to university life.

As for local talks, I gave plenty of them, most often about our fundamental freedoms and why everyone should defend them.

What became my standard “stump speech” focused on the growing indifference to the attacks on freedom of speech, association, and religion in the wider culture, but especially on our college campuses. As far as I could tell, my message was well received, even by many listeners who do not identify as conservative or libertarian.

I believe the main reason for this is that I framed this talk as a defense of what I like to call “rock-ribbed liberalism,” about which I have written elsewhere: “I miss liberalism. Real liberalism. Not this namby-pamby, afraid-of-your-own-shadow faint-hearted liberalism. What I miss is the rock-ribbed, truth-seeking, justice-pursuing, rights-defending, I-don’t-agree-with-you-but-I’ll-defend-your-right-to-say-it liberalism. It was the liberalism that defeated Nazism and Communism. It was your daddy’s liberalism….”

This approach resonated with a lot of people.

From what I could gather, and from my numerous conversations on campus, the administration, faculty, and staff are generally supportive of the visiting scholar program. Although there is no doubt that CU, like virtually all public universities, is overwhelmingly liberal in its political composition, I never felt unwelcome or out of place. For me, it was almost as if the campus was whispering in my ear, “Let your light shine.”

  • cbohanon

    Nice to read some good news! I think it is spot on: Milo and Anne Coulter are NOT good conservative speakers. Bring in a serious intellectual with a perspective and ideas and the rabble-rousing left will not show up. It won’t be on their radar screen. And we all might learn something. THANKS FOR THE UPDATE

    • David Marshall

      True, but that doesn’t mean we should let thugs outshout, outshove, and intimidate student groups from hosting bad conservative speakers, or confrontative speakers, if they like. These are still public universities.

      • cbohanon

        Matt and David: I agree 100% that Milo and Anne should be able to speak at a public university when invited and be treated cordially. So should Angela Davis and Jeremiah Wright. It is just that a conservative-libertarian perspective is better served by bringing in the host of other conservative-libertarian speakers that are not as shallow and bombastic as M & A.

        • FC

          Are you saying that Angela Davis and Jeremiah Wright–who cloak virtually every topic in terms of race–are deep thinkers when compared to Milo and Anne? I will challenge you on that, by putting them at the same round table with Herman Cain and Ben Carson.)

          • cbohanon

            No. I think they are about at the same level as Milo and Anne….all four can put on a good show but that is what they all are at best — provocateurs. I think kind of speaker is OK on a campus, but it is not the highest form of academic discourse, nor one I am particularly interested in being part of– but it is something of which I am tolerant. Not that my toleration can or should matter much on my campus or any other. (Although, a Herman, Ben, Angela, Jeremiah forum properly structured could be intriguing)

        • Angela Davis is a criminal. She should not be given money.

    • Matt

      Jordan Peterson would disagree with you.

  • PainterB

    Thank you for writing about your time at CU. This gives me hope that free discussion of ideas among people of differing opinion exists and is possible in the University today.

  • frumious

    I worry that academic administrators underestimate the ability of many students to face ideas different from their own in a constructive way, and let those who want to suppress discourse have their way. Perhaps it just seems easier. But this sort of preemptive surrender is not a good life lesson for students, who in the world of work will encounters leaders and managers who are less inclined to abdicate.

  • tiredofgarbage

    Good thing you weren’t at Colorado State – where you definitely would NOT have been accepted!

  • JWJ

    “…happy to report that the lectures were well-attended and that there were none of the disturbances or protests that we’ve seen on other campuses throughout the U.S. over the past few years. Audience members asked probing questions, but they were clearly offered in a spirit of inquiry and truth-seeking, even when it was obvious that the questioner strongly disagreed with the speaker.”

    This is good news.
    However, did you (or the CU admin) have any type of specific plan if a (mostly leftist) intolerance group would have organized to shout down or attack your speakers such as what has happened at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, UCLA, Claremont, Michigan, Wisconsin, DePaul, NYU, Columbia, Univ of Buffalo, UC Irvine, Northwestern, to name a few?

  • Lou Sander

    I’ve briefly visited CU three times over the last year. If I’d have known about this program, I’d have looked you up. I’m a 1961 Graduate of Duke University, which in those days was known for its beautiful campus. That beauty has declined somewhat since then, mostly due to new buildings that couldn’t be built in the “old” style.

    When I’m at CU, I really think it’s a more beautiful place than even the “old” Duke. Great landscaping. Great public sculpture. Great green spaces. Nice mountains, too.

    Coloradans must be pretty illiterate, though. Otherwise how would they get “CU” out of “University of Colorado”? Even the barbarians at the University of North Carolina wouldn’t do THAT. “NCU”, indeed.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    What’s the connection between “Visiting Scholar of Conservative Thought and Policy” and classes on the US Constitution cases on religion? Thomism? What am I missing here?

    When I taught religious courses, American religious history, the only connection was the organizational origins of religious revival and those of political “parties” occurred at the same time. But all of this is too loose to be coupled in any overt way to the courses you describe. We’re not conflating Conservatism with Christian fundamentalism, are we?

    • Every visiting scholar teaches in his or her area of specialty. Most of my work, in recent years, has been in religion, law, and politics. If I were an expert in art history or geography, I would have taught courses in those areas.

      As a matter of historical accuracy, Christian fundamentalism is a Protestant movement that comes out of early 20th century America. Consequently, Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Catholic philosopher, could not be a “Christian fundamentalist.” But one need not even be a Catholic to know Aquinas and teach him well, as countless philosophers–including Bob Pasnau and Anthony Kenny–clearly show by their own careers.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        As a matter of historical accuracy, Christian fundamentalism first emerged in the 19th century. Its religious and philosophical roots are even older.

        Are you familiar with Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) and James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862)? The former was General Stonewall Jackson’s Chaplain, a seminary professor, and bitter opponent of modernism and Darwin. Dabney is the grandfather of American fundamentalism.

        There are numerous works on Christian fundamentalism, but I have found David Garth, “The Influence of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy on the Theology of James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney,” 1979 to be most illuminating. Specifically, the role of Presbyterians in the founding of this great nation of ours cannot be denied, nor can the influence of Calvinist biblicism and Scottish doxological empiricism on the Constitution’s originary context. This is what makes an accurate dating of theological fundamentalism so important.

        Many of the current administration (DeVos, Price) are affiliated with the radically “conservative” branches of Presbyterianism, so these historical precedents have more than passing significance.

  • Jason G.

    It is sad that inclusion of conservative professors and pursuit of diversity is limited to one position paid for by private donations.

    I wish the school was actually committed to diversity in this way in their actual hiring processes.

  • DrOfnothing

    Nothing here should surprise anyone who has spent any time at an actual university, rather than simply reading about universities on Con and Neocon websites like this one. The latter vastly exaggerate the day-to-day situation on campus with regards to dialogue and politics. Are there protests? Yes? Have they turned ugly recently? Yes–but that is a sign of the times across America, and hardly confined to universities alone.

    When I relate the hysteria I see on display here to the students and faculty at the universities under discussion (UNC-CH) especially, the response is invariably bewilderment. It’s not that the JMC fabricates information, rather it’s that they present a viewpoint so hopelessly slanted by ideology and so completely out of touch with the daily experience of university communities that it _sounds_ like fiction when I share it with those who study and work there.