For weeks, the 33 students in Elyse Crystall's "Literature and Cultural Diversity" class at UNC-Chapel Hill had been tackling sticky issues like racism, sexism and various forms of privilege. Discussions were lively and respectful, students recall, even when they touched on emotional subjects.
On this particular day in February, talk turned to why some straight men feel threatened by gay men. There was the usual back-and-forth, with people expressing a range of views. Someone made a joke about how glad he was when a gay acquaintance hit on him because at least that meant someone was interested.
Then, a few minutes before the end of the Thursday session, Tim Mertes raised his hand to speak. Classmate Amanda Buckley says he'd spoken up before on other issues, identifying himself as a conservative and a Christian. So she wasn't surprised when Mertes said homosexuality was against his beliefs.
What did surprise her was the language he used in recounting a friend's reaction to getting a love letter from a gay man. "He said it was impure and disgusting and he used the word dirty," recalls Buckley, a sophomore who's majoring in women's studies and Spanish. "Eighty percent of the hands flew up after he spoke. Everyone just jumped out of their seats."
Because class time was up, the discussion had to end there. But Crystall says a few students stayed behind to tell her how much Mertes' remarks had upset them.
Will Hall wasn't among them, though he certainly felt upset. A senior who is majoring in psychology, Hall says he's probably the only gay person in the class--a fact he hasn't shared with most of his classmates. "I was just like a seat or two down from Tim and I felt really uncomfortable," Hall says. "After class, I just ran right out of there. I've been in way more controversial classes, but nothing like that had ever happened before."
After doing some research on the university's honor code and anti-discrimination policies, Crystall decided she needed to address Mertes' comments head on--and to do so before the end of the four-day break between class sessions.
That Friday, Feb. 6, she sent an e-mail to her students, apologizing to anyone who might have felt "vulnerable or threatened" by what Mertes had said, adding, "I will not tolerate any racist, sexist and/or heterosexist comments in my class." She described the language he'd used as "hate speech" and an example of "white heterosexual Christian male" privilege--the type of privilege students had been exploring all semester.
Finally, she opened the class's online message board to "those of you who want to respond to and discuss further Thursday's class and the comments that Tim made, or anything else about this class, about yourselves, about the world."
"I thought students would get on the forum and talk more about what had happened," says Crystall, who has a Ph.D. in English and has been teaching at UNC for four years as a non-tenure-track instructor.
But things didn't go as she'd expected. Unbeknownst to Crystall, a conservative student activist who'd been shown the e-mail, sent it--without asking Mertes' permission--to The Daily Tar Heel, setting off a chain of publicity that would eventually attract the attention of the U.S. Department of Education.
The campus paper published a column Feb. 12 decrying the message as a "brutalizing" clampdown on free speech. From there, the spotlight intensified from a glow to a glare. The story was quickly picked up by the local press and by conservative media outlets across the country. Within a week, national Web sites were abuzz, Mertes had appeared on local talk radio, and Republican Congressman Walter Jones had weighed in, threatening an investigation by the state attorney general and the U.S. Department of Education.
Jones succeeded with the latter. On Mar. 22, the university received word that the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is looking into whether Cyrstall's e-mail "constituted harassment based on race or sex and whether the university responded appropriately." Among other items, the office has asked the university to turn over a descripton of Crystall's course and course materials, copies of all messages posted to the class bulletin board, and a roster of students "by race and sex."
Jones called in the feds despite the fact that Crystall's department chair had already met with her and Mertes, had convinced Crystall to send out a second e-mail apologizing for singling the student out, and had assigned another faculty member to monitor the class.
While hate mail began to pile up in Crystall's e-mail "in" box, traffic on the class bulletin board slowed to a crawl.
"There was virtually no talking going on," says Buckley, the women's studies major.
How did what would otherwise have been a minor blip in classroom communications become a major skirmish in the campus culture wars? The answer has to do with the presence of a well-financed conservative machine that's ready to roll out against what it views as the ruling "liberal orthodoxy" in higher education.
While local news coverage gave the impression that the response to Crystall's e-mail was spontaneous, in reality it was spurred by conservative student activists informed by a national right-wing strategy against gains represented by such "liberal" disciplines as women's studies and cultural diversity programs.
Attacks from the right are nothing new on university campuses. In the 1960s, then-TV commentator Jesse Helms often began his WRAL broadcasts by reading letters he said were sent to him by students outraged by radical excesses in Chapel Hill.
What is new is the emergence of a sophisticated network of conservative media outlets and think tanks that are ready to seize on events that bolster claims of left-wing "domination" in academia.
In the past few years, groups like the California-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture and the Raleigh-based Pope Center for Higher Education Policy have been busy writing reports, advising students and collecting complaints about "liberal bias" in college classrooms. (For more examples, see www.noindoctrination.org and www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org.)
The allegations are frequently anonymous and anecdotal, and the targets are often non-tenured or beginning teachers. But that hasn't stopped the issue from gaining traction.
One reason is that the machine has major financial backing. The Center for the Study of Popular Culture received $2.7 million in grants from leading conservative foundations between 1999 and 2001, according to a new report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (www.ncrp.org)--and a hefty portion of that money was for publications, Web sites and other media activities. Reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service show the California center accumulated $2.9 million in overall revenue in 2002, while the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation--the Pope Center's former parent organization--took in $1.53 million. (The Pope Center has just recently spun off as a separate nonprofit and will be filing its own financial reports from now on).
The activities of these groups aren't limited to mere publicity. Versions of an "Academic Bill of Rights" proposed by David Horowitz--founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture--are gaining ground in Colorado, Georgia and Missouri, while a national bill introduced in October is being reviewed by a congressional committee. U.S. Rep. Jones is a co-sponsor of that measure, which calls for university hiring practices that promote "a plurality of methodologies and perspectives" and bar faculty from using courses "for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination."
Cries of "bias" aren't limited to public universities. The same week that Crystall's e-mail hit the press, conservative students at Duke published an ad in their campus newspaper taking university leaders to task for the lack of "intellectual diversity" on campus. As evidence, students cited the percentages of registered Democrats and Republicans among deans and on the faculty in eight departments to show how GOP members are almost nonexistent.
The ad was criticized for highlighting imbalances only in select departments--most of them in the arts and humanities--rather than campus-wide, and for suggesting that current tenure and hiring practices are tilted toward those with liberal politics. But it certainly scored points with the national media, with items showing up in The Wall Street Journal and FrontPage magazine, the online publication of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.
Leaders of the Duke Conservative Union are quick to deny any connection to off-campus networks. "The allegation's been made that we were put up to this by David Horowitz and that's completely unfounded," says DCU Director Madison Kitchens.
Maybe so. But the ad bears a striking resemblance to what's beaming out over the Web site of Students for Academic Freedom, the center's organizing arm. The group, which now has 130 chapters nationwide--including at Duke--makes publicizing faculty political affiliations a key strategy for proving a liberal slant, and provides step-by-step instructions for how to do so.
Conservative students say they're simply calling attention to a higher education climate that's unfriendly to those on the right.
"It wouldn't matter what faculty orientation was if everyone was fair," says UNC-Chapel Hill senior Michael McKnight, chair of the state Federation of College Republicans and an intern with the Pope Center. "People just feel there's an overwhelming liberal majority here, and they rule."
Michael Munger, a conservative who chairs Duke's political science department, suggested at a recent campus forum that a more balanced faculty would benefit liberal students, too. "Is a total lack of conservative voices a good thing?" he asked.
But while the new activism appears to operate under the banners of free speech and diversity, critics say the real aim is to intimidate left-leaning professors and shut down the marketplace of ideas that's at the heart of the university's mission.
Calls for ideological balance are being made without regard to the negative remedies that will be used to achieve it. "How do you have a program of fairness without a litmus test of potential faculty members' beliefs?" asks William Billingsley, author of Communists on Campus, a book about North Carolina's infamous 1963 speaker ban law. "Instead of eliminating politics from the classroom or the academy, these efforts will make it front and center."
Catherine Lutz, a former UNC professor of anthropology who received death threats for organizing campus teach-ins during the run-up to the war in Afghanistan, is even more forthright.
"What they're trying to do is take back the last institution in this country that doesn't have a complete right-wing agenda because it's founded on the notion of free inquiry, knowledge and research--and has protections in place for those reasons," she says.
The conservative rapid-response network was certainly active in Crystall's case.
The first off-campus voice to chime in was Mike Adams, a tenured associate professor in the criminal justice program at UNC-Wilmington and a columnist for the right-wing Heritage Foundation. (The foundation is the nation's number one destination for conservative grants, according to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report).
Adams, an outspoken Democrat-turned-Republican whose pet peeves are feminists and "peaceniks," wrote a Feb. 16 column, "Welcome to Hate Speech 101," that quoted Crystall's e-mail in its entirety and branded the lecturer as a free-speech villain.
"What kind of behavior could have possibly prompted a UNC professor to so harshly rebuke one of her students?" Adams wrote. "Was the student wearing a hooded white robe? Did he have a noose in his hand? Did he utter the "n" word?"
A few days later, Republican Congressman Jones was listening to his car radio when he heard Mertes being interviewed on The Jerry Agar Show on WPTF-AM in Raleigh. Jones, an ultraconservative best known for his "freedom fries" bill introduced during the buildup to the war in Iraq, fired off a press release and a letter to UNC's chancellor castigating university leaders for failing to "implement structural changes that could have prevented this outrageous incident."
Employing the same high-tech-lynching language used by Adams, Jones insisted that, "had Ms. Crystall substituted the word 'black' for 'white,' 'homosexual' for 'heterosexual' or 'Muslim' for 'Christian,' she would have been suspended or fired immediately."
Back in Chapel Hill, staffers and interns from the Pope Center were among those talking to Mertes about how to respond to Crystall's e-mail, among them, Laura Thomas, the student who initially took it to the Daily Tar Heel.
Mertes, who was named on Agar's radio show, though not in most print or online reports, did not respond to numerous requests to be interviewed for this article.
But his conservative compatriots aren't shy about expressing their pleasure at the notice his story has received. "The media coverage really helped us out," says Thomas, who ran unsuccessfully for UNC student body president on a platform of creating a more welcoming atmosphere for conservatives. "If it was just Tim going to a dean, it wouldn't have gotten the attention. A lot of people say the media attention shows there isn't much bias here. But there are other incidents that didn't get to the right people to get out there. This is just one example."
When asked why she took it on herself to forward Crystall's e-mail without Mertes' consent, Thomas is resolute. "When I saw it, I knew this was wrong and can't be allowed," she says.
For some students and faculty on campus--even many who disagree with the content of Crystall's e-mail--the problem isn't so much what got said in the media reports as what got left out. Because the coverage was framed solely in terms of free speech, they say, other important issues were pushed aside.
Hate speech is one. Gay and lesbian students are upset that in the wake of the controversy, university administrators reaffirmed the right to free expression but said nothing about homophobia. "I think the media has focused a lot on the responsibilities of Elyse rather than the responsibilities of the students," says Trevor Hoppe, co-chair of the campus Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Straight Alliance. "That hasn't felt good to gay identified students on campus."
The subtleties of classroom dynamics are another. "Elyse may not have been exactly right about everything she did in this case," says Altha Cravey, an associate professor of geography and a member of the Progressive Faculty Network at UNC. "But there was no understanding of what she was trying to do and her responsibility to guide the discussion as a teacher."
Addressing such complexities is a lot harder in the swirl of a media storm, notes James Thompson, Crystall's department chair, who read many of the dozens of hate-mail messages she got.
"On the Web and on the radio, this turned instantly into the terms that David Horowitz has made famous: 'We need an affirmative action program for conservatives and Christian faculty because everyone here is left wing and femiNazi'," Thompson says. "But that's not what happened in the classroom. The classroom involved specific people and specific issues. It wasn't about free speech, it was about a very specific issue. It spun way out of control."
Alison Greene watched that spin with a heavy heart. Greene, an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at UNC, felt like she'd been there before--albeit without the ramped-up, off-campus scrutiny. Last spring, she had the audacity to reveal her opposition to the Iraq war to students in a large lecture class. In return for her candor, she became the subject of a concerted attack, both in the conservative campus paper, Carolina Review, and in her own classroom.
The Anthropology 10 class began meeting just as the United States was invading Iraq, and Greene decided she couldn't ignore the intersection of current events and course materials--which included a book on a Shiite village in southern Iraq.
"I started framing things in terms of the offensive," she says, by describing the effects of the U.S.-led invasion and alerting students to Web sites listing Iraqi casualties. She showed a video about United Nations sanctions imposed after the Gulf War, and wrote an exam question asking students to explore the logic of the Bush Administration's claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Against the advice of some colleagues, Greene shared her personal opinions on the war with students because she felt it was "intellectually honest." In response, the Review slammed Greene's class as "a daily diatribe against Bush's Iraq policy" and sent out a call for students to "speak up against the vapid leftist ideology whenever professors force it into the classroom."
Soon, unannounced visitors began showing up in the lecture hall, taking notes and interrupting Greene with shouted requests that she "bring in the other side."
Greene, whose previous course evaluations were always positive, was bewildered by the onslaught and unsure of how to respond. "You have me all wrong," she recalls telling one student who criticized her for being too political. "I'm not a radical. I'm a soccer mom, I'm a citizen!"
After failed attempts to engage individual students, Greene sought help from her department chair and other administrators. They advised her not to talk to the Review and to try to ignore the negative comments in class.
Another article appeared in the paper's May issue quoting unnamed students who claimed "widespread dissatisfaction with Greene's "methods and course materials." (Look for more anonymous complaints in this month's issue of the Review under the banner headline, "Is Your Professor Violating Your Civil Rights?")
The story also said Greene had "sharply criticized" class member Natalie Russell--a writer for the paper and sister of the publisher--for the tone of the previous article. "In standing up to academic misconduct, students should not have to fear Greene's angry reaction," the paper asserted.
Russell did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Greene, who is about to embark on a new teaching assignment in Sweden, is quick to emphasize that she was not disciplined by administrators, nor did she face a media barrage because of what happened in class.
But she worries that more teachers will be singled out for harassment unless the university develops a clearer line of response.
"There was no give and take. They just labeled me a liberal indoctrinator," Greene says. "I feel like mine was perhaps one in a speedup to these kinds of incidents. It seems the structure of the attacks has solidified."
Providing structure is part of Joey Stansbury's charge as outreach director for the Pope Center's new satellite office in Chapel Hill.
As a member of UNC's class of 1994 (he majored in political science), he feels uniquely qualified to be dealing with issues on campus and a "kindred spirit" with the current crop of conservative student activists.
Stansbury's plugged in in other ways, too. A political science major, he worked on Congressman Jones' campaign and also with the John William Pope Foundation--the primary funding source for the John Locke Foundation and the Pope Center, which is now a separate nonprofit. (The Pope Foundation's namesake is a former trustee of UNC-Chapel Hill who made his fortune in the regional discount store business and was an outspoken critic of the university's black culture center).
Few people are aware of the Pope Center's presence in Chapel Hill, and that's partly because its leaders don't seem eager to advertise. When asked what activities will go on at the new office-- perched unobtrusively in a second-floor, former print shop above the heart of Franklin Street--Stansbury is vague.
"We have a commitment to trying to promote quality higher education in North Carolina," he says. "As an organization that will grow, we will develop programs and activities as we try to figure out what the needs will be."
He refers questions about the operating budget to center Director George Leef, who says, "It's small, in the low six figures."
The Pope Center hasn't signed on to the Academic Bill of Rights being pushed by other conservative think tanks. But it will be monitoring examples of "liberal bias" in teaching, faculty hiring and policies governing student groups at North Carolina universities. (For starters, it has reserved the online domain name, www.campusbias.org.)
Stansbury's a lot more animated when it comes to talking about those examples, which he says are numerous at UNC. "I think it's even more egregious now than when I was here," he says, taking a visitor on a tour of campus in order to point out such "liberal" strongholds as the campus YMCA and the new center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
When it's pointed out to Stansbury that so far, conservative students haven't come up with solid proof of discrimination--grades being marked down, for example, or publications being silenced (let alone, years of being barred from admission like African Americans and women)--he's undeterred.
"A lot of the anecdotal parts look like a single incident. When you start putting them together, it creates a larger picture," he says. "I use the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. How many pieces do you need before you see it's not just anecdotal?"
The Pope Center may have a low public profile, but conservative students say it's been a major boost to some of the high-profile organizing going on at UNC.
Senior Michael McKnight is a founder of The Committee for a Better Carolina, a group that's been loudly critical of the university's summer reading choices and has proposed that faculty sign a pledge to guarantee "respect for all viewpoints." (They're still working on the wording). He says the committee has received "several thousand dollars" worth of grants from the Pope Center--including for a full-page newspaper ad denouncing the choice of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed for summer reading last year.
As he talks about the new wave of conservative activism, McKnight is articulate and engaging. It's hard not to want to sympathize with his portrait of conservative students as an under-respected minority that's finally starting to speak out.
But then he goes that one extra step.
In describing his discussions with Mertes after Crystall's e-mail went public: "I told him, the more you talk, the more cover you have," McKnight says. "If it were me, I would have demanded more. He could have sued."
When asked if there might have been some merit to Crystall's concerns that Mertes' remarks intimidated gay students in class: "That's laughable," he says. "I can't imagine a campus that's more gay-friendly than this one. People talk about heterosexism, but I almost feel like there is homosexism going on here--that everyone's shoving homosexuality down my throat."
So is it really free speech conservative students are agitating for, or just the speech they want to hear?
That's a question Ronak Shah, another student in Crystall's class, found himself wrestling with in the days following the publication of her e-mail. Although he thinks it would have been more effective had Crystall spoken directly to Mertes after class (a point on which Crystall, in hindsight, agrees), Shah says he wasn't put off by his teacher's message.
"I thought she had every right to tell Tim this would not be allowed," says the 21-year-old biology major. "What he said was as bad as calling someone the 'n' word."
Sarah Shields, an associate professor of history who teaches Middle East Studies at UNC, knows what it's like to be dealing with sensitive subjects in class--especially in the polarized, post 9-11 atmosphere.
"Many of my students now feel comfortable saying awful things about Arabs," she says. "That's what I think Elyse was dealing with. Right now, it's acceptable in some circles to make comments about homosexuals that can't be made about others. I think it would be helpful for us all to sit down and think about how you address that without impinging on students' rights."
More troublesome for some students than what happened in Crystall's class that day was the intrusive media activity drawn there by conservative activists and the impression it created of a problem that needs fixing.
"This wasn't free speech, this was someone on a power trip," says Amanda Buckley. "In class and on the Web site, we all felt like someone was going to take what we'd written and blow it all out of proportion. When the [department-assigned] class monitor came in to talk to us, I told her I feel far less safe after the media attention."
Crystall says she is scheduled to teach again this fall--a fact her department chair confirms. But nearly a month after her story blew up in the media, she doesn't feel safe, either. She is still getting hate mail and she did not want her picture taken for this article, because, she says, "I've been enough of a target."
Meanwhile, faculty and student groups on campus are trying to find ways to prevent similar controversies from taking other classes hostage. Judith Wegner, a law professor and chair of the UNC faculty, says there are lots of other options--more teacher training, a new ombudsman's office, focus group interviews with students.
The same day that the university received official notice of the federal investigation, the faculty council unanimously adopted a resolution reaffirming UNC's commitment to the "importance of intellectual integrity and freedom" and urging the administration to "protect the integrity of the classroom and the University as a space for safe, respectful difference and dialogue."
A letter sent to the chancellor last week by the Progressive Faculty Network was more specific, calling for administrative support for teachers who address "discriminatory comments" in class, and a campuswide forum to dicuss academic freedom.
How effective these efforts will be against well-heeled conservative networks is anyone's guess. "It can't be a healthy thing if every instance is e-mailed to a congressman," Wegner points out.
If she's learned anything from her experience over the past year, Greene, the anthropology teacher, says it's that such encounters can't be brushed off.
"They start by labeling the lecturer as liberal, then the class as liberal. They have a method and they're using it," she says. "I don't think people can just ignore this."