When 'academic freedom' gives way to absurdity
by Jack Cashill
In the chilly, pre-dawn hours of Dec. 5, two angry men apparently staked out the Lawrence home of Kansas University religion professor Paul Mirecki. There is no other way really they could have picked up his trail. Mirecki left his house at about 6 a.m. and, fortuitously for his pursuers, headed south out of town on a lonely, rural road in pursuit of an elusive country breakfast.
The two "Christian thugs" – as the nation's leading leftist blog described the still unidentified pair – followed Mirecki in their archetypal "large pickup truck." Mirecki pulled off the road to let the men pass, but the men pulled off too at a spot, alas, beyond the prying gaze of eyewitnesses.
Undaunted, Mirecki jumped out of his vehicle to confront the blue-jeaned thugs in the dark, and they proceeded to beat him lightly about the head and shoulders, all the while, according to the Lawrence Journal World, "making references to the controversy that has propelled him into the headlines in recent weeks."
The controversy involved a course that Mirecki, as chairman of KU's Religious Studies Department, had proposed just a few weeks earlier. The very proposal of this course and its curious denouement provide a wonderful teaching opportunity for those administrators – at KU and elsewhere – who are willing to take its lessons to heart.
Lesson 1: Respect your patrons
On Nov. 8, the duly elected Kansas School Board voted to allow for critiques of Darwinism in public school classrooms. Mirecki put his finger up to the wind and felt enough hot professorial air to fill his sails. "The KU faculty has had enough," he claimed defiantly and publicly a week or so later. That he felt comfortable to speak for the entire faculty says something unsettling about Mirecki or the faculty, or, more likely, both.
No mere blowhard, Mirecki took action. He proposed a course whose very title glowed with disdain for Kansas taxpayers – "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies." And for a moment at least, he was a hero on the smugger parts of the Lawrence campus.
One has to marvel at the hubris of it all. Imagine, for instance, if some Microsoft technicians had "had enough" with the company's stockholders because of a rightward drift on MSNBC. "You've had enough?" says a bemused Bill Gates. "Hasta la vista, baby."
Unfortunately, KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway has no such power. Before Mirecki's self-inflicted melodrama was even half over, Hemenway would be forced to apologize to Kansas citizens for Mirecki's "repugnant and vile" comments while Mirecki groused publicly about how the administration had abandoned him. Unlike certain faculty, Hemenway knows who pays the freight at KU.
Lesson 2: End tenure
It was only slightly harder to dislodge Saddam than it is a tenured professor anywhere. Proof of the same is that Mirecki still teaches at KU.
At first, Hemenway defended the course proposal, presuming it "a serious and intellectually honest way" to deal with an issue. In an unguarded moment, however, Mirecki let it be known that the course was anything but. He told the communicants in a campus atheist and agnostic Internet discussion group that he had conceived the course as "a nice slap in their big fat face." The "their" referred to what Mirecki calls "fundies," his shorthand for fundamentalist Christians.
But that was only the half of it. The "Evil Dr. P" – Mirecki's online persona – had posted any number of spectacularly silly anti-Christian slurs on the Internet. My personal favorite was his response to a student who described the dying pope as "a corpse in a funny hat wearing a dress." Answered Mirecki, the chairman of the Religious Studies Department, "I love it! I refer to him as J2P2 (John Paul II), like the 'Star Wars' robot R2D2."
As is obvious, in addition to fundies, Mirecki has no apparent use for Catholics. After all, "They just go home and use condoms, and some of them beat their wives and husbands"
Lesson 3: Recalibrate 'academic freedom'
Supporters of tenure insist that it is the only way to ensure academic freedom. But in truth, "academic freedom" is really just a measure of the pressure an offended interest group can bring to bear on a given campus. There is nothing constant about it.
Given Mirecki's expressed fondness for Catholics – "Yup, its (sic) world domination they are after" – it would be amusing to gauge the campus reaction were his next book to be, say, "The Protocols of the Elders of Rome." Would his colleagues celebrate his contribution to academic freedom? Or would they recognize the obvious relativity of that concept? To be sure, had Mirecki so miffed any number of more forceful groups, he would already be bussing tables at the Free State Brewery, and his colleagues would be saying, "Paul who?"
These distinctions seem lost on Mirecki. When the administration pressured Mirecki to step down as chairman, he threatened to sue.
"The University has a duty, as a protector of intellectual honesty and debate, to support its teaching staff when controversial issues are raised," Mirecki griped. Controversial it was, but the proposed course was only as honest and intellectual as a slap in someone's big fat face could possibly be. If anything, Mirecki should have thanked the administration for not firing his sorry, spiteful butt.
Lesson 4: Embrace diversity
For more than a generation, universities have pursued racial and gender diversity to the point where even an ersatz ethnic like Colorado University's Ward "little Eichmanns" Churchill could build a career on a fully fake Indian identity.
In the meantime, intellectual diversity on campus has gone the way of phone booth stuffing and goldfish swallowing. With few exceptions, liberal arts faculties nationwide have become almost comically monolithic in their political orientation. If they were un-diverse in ways that reinforced the state's noble traditions, it would be problematic, but to be un-diverse in ways that mock those traditions is downright pathological. The most eye-opening claim that Mirecki made, heretofore overlooked by the media, speaks to this point.
"The majority of my colleagues here in the dept (sic) are agnostics or atheists, or they just don't care," wrote Mirecki to a discussion group on April 18, 2004. "If any of them are theists, it hasn't been obvious to me in the 15 years I've been here." In a department filled with theists, Mirecki might be an interesting curiosity, a little dose of diversity. But he was the chairman. He did the hiring. He and his buddies succeeded in turning the university's historic mission on its head with no one's mandate but their own.
A little history is in order here. One-hundred fifty years ago, a bunch of radical Christian extremists left their comfortable New England homes and risked their lives to found both Lawrence and the university that sits there:
Upbearing, like the ark of God,
These folks were "captives of a single issue," scoffed the New York media, an issue as unfashionable as any that troubles the state today – abolitionism. These same people created the university as a God-fearing institution. Their spiritual heirs launched the School of Religion as a place for KU students to deepen their faith and even prepare for the seminary. Only within the last 20 years have things changed, and until last month, Kansas taxpayers didn't even know about the change, let alone endorse it.
"As I often tell my students in the first day of class," Mirecki once boasted, "if anyone gets converted in this class, its not my fault!" In this regard, at least, one suspects that he is as good as his word.
[Previous article: Mirecki now mum on alleged beating]
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