By the Way: Bush Commencement Opposed by Furman Faculty

It’s probably safe to say that, whatever its considerable merits, Furman University is only the second most recognized educational institution in Greenville, South Carolina. The most familiar–some would say the most notorious–lies behind the gated walls of Bob Jones University.

Due in part to the agency of my friend Stephen Fox, I had a delightful visit to Furman earlier this year, where I gave a lecture on religion and presidential politics in the chapel (not from the pulpit, mind you, because I was not preaching). The faculty who attended seemed interested, and so did many of the students. But others were openly skeptical of my conclusion that, with the single exception of Jimmy Carter, no president over the past half century has actually sought to govern the nation according to the moral and religious principles he affirmed during his campaign for the White House.

Bill Clinton’s transgressions are well known to students at a place like Furman, but what about Ronald Reagan, they ask. Reagan campaigned twice for the presidency (1980 and 1984) promising to outlaw abortion (this despite the fact that, as governor of California in 1967, he had signed the most liberal abortion law in the nation). Yet even his most stalwart defenders now concede that Reagan expended no real effort to outlaw abortion. I also generally point out that in Reagan’s autobiography, which extends more than 700 pages, the issue of abortion appears not once.

The case for the disjunction between rhetoric and policy with George W. Bush is easier to make. Here you have a candidate who grandly declared on the eve of the Iowa precinct caucuses in 2000 that Jesus was his favorite philosopher and who made much of his evangelical conversions during both campaigns. Yet, with the highly arguable exception of vetoing research on stem cells, Bush’s Christian faith has had precious little effect on his policies as president. Think of the Bush administration’s persistent and systematic use of torture, for example, his cavalier approach to the environment, or his utter disregard for just-war theory in the reckless invasion of Iraq.

What I’ve observed in places like Furman and other colleges and universities where I’ve been asked to lecture (or preach) in recent years is that the faculty tend to be sandwiched between the administration and the student body. The administration (not surprisingly) and the students (somewhat surprisingly) are conservative, politically and, at some schools, theologically, whereas members of the faculty (thank God!) tilt at least slightly to the left.

(I’ve made the case elsewhere for the virtues of the “liberal” academy, so I won’t belabor the point here; and “liberal,” believe me, is a relative term. Briefly, the academy may be the final holdout in a nation where all of the other cultural institutions that define our society–government, media, arts, philanthropy–have capitulated to the excesses of conservativism.)

These are generalizations, of course, which means there are plenty of exceptions. But the case of Furman University illustrates my point. Someone in Furman’s administration thought it would be a swell idea to invite George W. Bush to be the university’s commencement speaker.

To the best of my knowledge, Furman students have uttered nary a word in protest, but scores of faculty members have raised objections. “Under ordinary circumstances it would be an honor for Furman University to be visited by the President of the United States,” a letter of faculty protest reads. “However, these are not ordinary circumstances.” The letter goes on to list some of the moral atrocities committed by the Bush Administration.

Contrary to popular perceptions, and tenure notwithstanding, it’s not easy for faculty members to stand up to their administration, especially at a relatively small school like Furman. Members of the administration ultimately determine your salary and promotions. More important, faculty members are often friends with individuals in the administration. That makes the actions of the Furman faculty all the more impressive.

Kudos to the faculty at Furman. Signing this letter of protest may not exactly rise to the level of a profile in courage, but it’s a start.

The letter talks about the university’s invitation to Bush as a “teachable moment.” Let’s hope the students are paying attention. And perhaps the administration, too.

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