Anti-Trumpism in the classroom at Butler

Published June 5, 2017

“Donald J. Trump won the U.S Presidency despite perpetuating sexism, white supremacy, xenophobia, nationalism, nativism, and imperialism.”

That statement is not a tweet by an outraged Hillary Clinton supporter. It is the first line describing a course to be held this fall at Butler University — at least it was the first line. When the Heartland Institute distributed a brief story about the course, it aroused such a backlash that Ann Savage, professor of critical communication and media studies at Butler, was told to tone down the description.

The new one is unremarkable: “This course offers a broad historical, political, and critical communication studies approach to understanding the rise of Donald Trump as a political and social phenomenon.” The new description also states Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, will be part of the readings.

Of course, the thrust of the class hasn’t changed, and this “Special Topics” course, “Trumpism and U.S. Democracy,” says a lot about the state of academia. Butler is a private liberal arts school in Indiana, best known for a successful basketball team. It seems that politically speaking, anything goes at Middle-American colleges these days.

Butler’s administration gets an A grade for crisis control. Once the bad publicity hit, Butler’s provost acted immediately to revise the description; the original was removed; and the president of the school talked openly about the brouhaha, giving the impression of transparency.

But its grade for candor is not as high. Not only did Butler erase the original description, it acted as though nothing was wrong. James Danko, Butler’s president, wrote, “The more complete description of the course makes it clear that the educational objectives are quite consistent with our role as educators, namely, to promote critical inquiry and to engage our students on topics, even if controversial.”

That’s ridiculous. First, the new course description available to the public is not “more complete”; it has merely been softened. As for critical inquiry, the course encourages critical attack, not inquiry.

Looking further at the original course description, we see the course will include “How Trump’s rhetoric is contrary to the foundation of the U. S. democracy, and what his win means for the future.” There is also the ominous statement — recently echoed by Hillary Clinton — that the course will “also discuss, and potentially engage in, strategies for resistance.”


In both the original and the bowdlerized versions, the readings for the course are “crowd sourced,” and the main selections will be from imaginary anti-Trump course syllabi that have appeared in the media. The most prominent was published in June 2016 by the Chronicle Review, the intellectual and leftist arm of the Chronicle of Higher Education. That article, titled “Trump 101,” was an unsigned outline of readings (presumably “crowd sourced”).

To capture the tone of the Chronicle Review piece, consider one of the readings is Philip Roth’s 2004 book The Plot Against America. “Roth is often quoted as saying that one cannot write good satire in America because reality will always outdo it,” the article says. “With Trump it has.”

And there’s Henrik Ibsen’s 1893 drama, The Master Builder. Writes the Review, “Halvard Solness is a vain, controlling, and competitive architect and builder — today we might call him a developer. It is all here: sex, fear, madness, jealousy, revenge —just about every dark emotion stirred by Trump’s quest for victory over others.”

Another selection is Jonathan Rieder’s 1985 book Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism. Says the Review, “Charts the rise of a sneering, nasty, anti-liberal politics built around blaming a racial other for the desperation of working-class life in a Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1970s. This is the milieu out of which Trump emerged.”

Those are among the sources Savage will draw from. By the way, the comments to the Chronicle article were generally enthusiastic, but one commenter laughed, imagining all the complaints that would come if “a professor dared to assign this much reading to the modern college student.”

The takeaway here is whatever Danko really thinks of “Trumpism and U.S. Democracy,” if he wants to remain president, he must defer to professors’ choices —that’s academic freedom today. And why not? Savage received a distinguished faculty award in 2016 for service and leadership. She came to Butler in 1998, created a Women’s Caucus, spurred a presidential commission on gender equity, and started the Butler faculty’s Collaborative for Critical Inquiry into Race, Gender, and Sexuality, which deals with the “relationship between social justice and pedagogy.”

For those familiar with academe, Savage’s credentials are shining. And it’s a breeze for her to analyze the election of Donald Trump. The script has been written; just fill in the blanks.

[Originally Published in the Indianapolis Star]