Will the Great Awokening Kill Catholic Liberal Education?

Published October 4, 2021

National Review Online

When cancel culture gains a foothold at the University of Dallas — a rare outpost of faithfully Catholic liberal-arts education — it is time to take notice. UD history professor William Atto is under fire for the supposedly racist act of putting the term “China virus” on his syllabus. More concerning still, the school’s diversity lobby — no friend to UD’s traditional Catholic mission — apparently hopes to use the incident to transform the character of the school. UD is now a test case for the ability of faithfully Catholic liberal-arts education to withstand the assaults of the woke.

There are several reasons why some prefer the term “China virus” to “COVID.” In the first place, pandemics like the “Spanish flu” of 1918, or the “Hong Kong flu” of 1968, are typically named for their places of origin. Second, unsupported accusations of racism for continuing this practice strengthen the inclination of many to stick with “China virus.” After all, surrendering to false claims of prejudice simply encourages more false accusations. Third, China’s failure to warn the world when it could have, the plausibility of a lab-leak origin for the virus, and the tendency of the media and many politicians to paper over that possibility, further incline some to persist in the traditional pandemic-naming practice. While I cannot confirm that any or all of these reasons figured in Professor Atto’s choice of words, the controversy strikes me as much ado about nothing.

That is how Yale’s 2015 controversy over Halloween costumes seemed at first, of course. In that case, however, Erika Christakis’s more serious crime was questioning the judgment of Yale’s diversity bureaucracy. Yale’s diversity lobby would brook no challenge to its orthodoxy, and successfully used the Halloween dustup to entrench its power over the university. The same pattern looks to be playing out at UD. The university’s deeply held, yet tolerant, Catholic commitment is slated for replacement by the unforgiving diktats of the Great Awokening.

The University of Dallas’s mission statement openly acknowledges the school’s dedication to the Catholic Church and its teaching. Yet that statement also welcomes faculty and students who are not Catholic, and promises to support their academic and religious freedom. What, then, of Professor Atto’s academic freedom? If reports are to be believed, in response to student attacks, the university instructed him to replace the term “China virus” on his syllabus. Fearing for his job, Atto made the change. If the university so easily surrenders to its diversity lobby on a matter of core principle, how will it defend the school’s commitment to a Catholic liberal-arts education when the very same pressure groups move to gut UD’s mission?

According to Susan Hanssen, chair of UD’s Department of History, this is exactly what UD’s diversity lobby is aiming for. Indeed, Hanssen herself — a strong public advocate of UD’s Catholic mission — may have been the real target of the protests. Apparently, those who attacked Professor Atto’s syllabus initially believed it to be Hanssen’s.

I first heard of Hanssen in 2015, when she signed onto the Scholars Protest Petition against the College Board’s revision to its Advanced Placement U.S. History course. Hanssen appeared on Fox News to explain that protest, and apparently UD’s diversity lobby cannot tolerate a professor who once appeared on Fox. I don’t want to get Hanssen into more hot water, but I must disclose that she was a discussant at the 2020 event where my book, The Lost History of Western Civilization, was debuted. (By the way, UD’s mission statement highlights the school’s commitment to the “recovery and renewal of the Western heritage of liberal education.”)

Readers who care about preserving redoubts of faithfully Catholic liberal-arts education against the woke tide will want to read Hanssen’s account of the battle for the soul of the University of Dallas. Readers might also want to be in touch with the University of Dallas administration to let them know the public is watching.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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