If one were to draw up a list of American colleges and universities to characterize as Ann Coulter country, Harding University would almost certainly be on it.
The private institution in Searcy, Ark., is affiliated with the Churches of Christ and emphasizes the teaching of Christian values. More to the point, the Young America's Foundation included the university last year on its list of "top 10 conservative colleges" that "proclaim, through their mission and programs, a dedication to discovering, maintaining and strengthening the conservative values of their students" -- a mantle the university acknowledged and welcomed.
So it probably shouldn't have been surprising when Harding announced in mid-August that Coulter, a conservative author, columnist and television personality known for her provocative and sometimes bombastic opinions, was among those invited to participate in the annual Distinguished Lecture Series at the university's American Studies Institute, which was founded by a former Harding president -- who was strongly anti-Communist -- upon his return from missionary work in China in the middle of the last century.
The lecture series, which aims to ground students in the "institutions, values and ideas of liberty and democracy" through "reflections from national and international leaders in business, government and education," has historically featured such luminaries as Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher; Zell Miller, the former Georgia governor and senator, was among this year's other speakers.
Yet in the days after Harding's announcement, a small group of Harding alumni began voicing their discontent on their blogs. Mike Cope, a minister at Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Tex., complained that Coulter lives in a "black/white 'I’m-right-and-you’re-an-idiot' world. If you don’t agree with her then you’re a bleeding heart liberal who doesn’t deserve to live here." The problem, he said, was not that Coulter is conservative, but that her views are un-Christian.
That view was echoed by Greg Kendall-Ball, a graduate divinity student at Abilene Christian University. He cited comments Coulter had made about countries that harbor terrorists -- "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" -- and about campus radicals: "When contemplating college liberals, you really regret once again that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors."
In inviting Coulter to the campus, wrote Kendall-Ball, whose father and sisters are also Harding alums, the university had "failed to uphold the Christ-like spirit that Harding seeks to embody." It troubled him, he said, that "someone advocating violence, forced conversions, physical intimidation and who has routinely expressed anti- or non-Christian views is welcomed and given one of the more prestigious speaking engagements on the school’s calendar."
Perhaps prodded by the bloggers, who saw visits to their sites shoot up from their standard levels in the last two weeks, alumni sent a slew of e-mails and letters urging Harding officials to reconsider.
And Tuesday, they did. In an e-mail message to faculty members, David Crouch, the director of public relations, said that the administration had "re-evaluated" its original decision to include Coulter in the 2005-6 lecture series, and replaced her with Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's former president.
"Harding and Ann Coulter are probably on the same page on many issues," Crouch said in an interview Wednesday. But he said that the alumni agitation -- and seeing some of Coulter's more outrageous comments, which he said "we did not know about" -- had prompted "second thoughts" on the part of administrators. "We grew concerned with the manner in which she presents her ideas. We believe that some of her comments are very controversial and confrontational, and we just weren't confortable with that."
Cope, Kendall-Ball and others who had been distressed by Harding's invitation to Coulter cheered the university's change of heart.
Coulter herself did not reply to e-mail messages seeking comment. But a spokesman for the Young America's Foundation, Jason Mattera, said that Harding's decision to "disinvite one of the top rated conservative speakers on campuses" shows a "lack of testicular fortitude." The foundation, he said,would "take it into consideration" when the group reevaluates its top 10 list of conservative campuses this year.