Denver Post - GOP's Schaffer Views Yorktown as "Classical"
When Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer resigned from the board of trustees of Yorktown University in May, he severed ties with a nationally known experiment that has drawn praise as an academic haven for conservatives even as it has generated misgivings among some of its faculty.
The online university boasts some respected scholars, but the description of its American culture concentration also describes popular music, modern art and psychology as "signs of serious cultural disturbance."
Currently accepting students for just one degree a master's in government Yorktown is seen by its founder as a place where students are steeped in the principles of supply-side economics, can freely talk about their views on abortion and other issues, and seek to restore the country to a path of what the course catalog describes as "cultural recovery."
One ethics lecture is titled "The Enlightenment as Failed Moral Revolution."
Schaffer's association with the Colorado-based virtual university illustrates a consistent strain across his political career: boldly ideological and often on the cutting edge of conservatism's intellectual crusade.
Finding a balance?
In Congress, Schaffer was a member of the Republican Study Committee, the intellectual home of the body's most conservative members, as well as the GOP Theme Team, a kind of debate squad that its leader once described as the political version of "gladiators."
But observers say that strain is exactly what he's now forced to downplay in a political cycle where appealing to moderate and independent voters will be crucial to winning the state's open Senate seat.
In an interview, Schaffer objected to any characterization of Yorktown as conservative, describing it instead as "an institution with a focus on classical education, a classical approach to economics and liberal arts."
"Some may regard that as conservative, but 'classical' is the proper context," said Schaffer, who said his decision to resign from the board was based on the time constraints of running a Senate campaign.
A trustee since 2005, Schaffer said he was attracted to the institution because of the innovative online model and its emphasis on the ideas and principles of America's Founding Fathers.
He considers the ideas behind the American culture concentration, including its characterization of psychology and popular music, as "essentially a restatement of the early founders of America's early education system," but he declined to elaborate exactly how.
"The transfer of information and knowledge is no longer confined to a college campus. Yorktown has found a way to bring the top professors in economics, government and history together and make them available to students around the world," said the former three-term congressman.
Richard Bishirjian, Yorktown's founder and president, has a more expansive notion of the university's mission and the role it plays in countering what he sees as the liberal bias of mainstream academia.
In a 2002 interview with Insight on the News, Bishirjian said the Internet allowed him and other scholars to "create a conservative community of interest, starting with a conservative faculty and moving on."
He told the magazine that "many of our students complain that (at traditional institutions) they have to constrain themselves because if they talk about their views on abortion and other issues, they offend their faculty."
In the student handbook, Bishirjian tells students they have an obligation to understand their role in Western civilization and "that fundamental to Western civilization is our apprehension of God's intervention in history."
Indeed, for Bishirjian, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, much of the past seven years has been a struggle to bring together cutting-edge educational technology with a mold-breaking academic mission, and other board members say Schaffer has been a strong force in that effort.
"Some hefty ideas"
"The board meetings are very engaging. You have very, very smart people kicking around some hefty ideas, and Bob was always great at those things," said Sean Duffy, a former aide to Gov. Bill Owens and another member of the board, which also includes talk-radio host Mike Rosen and Pat Toomey, the president of the conservative organization Club for Growth.
Yorktown recently received national accreditation after what Duffy called a contentious process "in the sense of trying to get bureaucrats to think outside the box."
Currently, several dozen students are enrolled, and, in a recent interview, Bishirjian talked of a plan to quickly expand now that the university has won accreditation. He described Yorktown's students as typically older and already working, and many are evangelical Christians.
One student is Dianne Gilbert, an activist in Epping, N.H., who first got interested in politics through talk radio and now runs an educational center on the U.S. Constitution.
Gilbert, who said she was disappointed by several experiences in mainstream universities, describes the Yorktown courses on government, constitutional law and economics as very demanding.
"I was certainly looking to study the Founding Fathers in an accurate and positive environment, not one that did these white European guys in because they don't quite match the social agenda that is raging in the country these days," she said.
Much more engaged
Mark Malvasi, who teaches courses in Yorktown's American culture concentration and is also a professor of Southern history at Randolph-Macon College, said the Yorktown students he has taught were often much more engaged than many of those in his classrooms in Ashland, Va. Also, they were typically social conservatives "who didn't like bureaucracy and big government and wanted to find out how that came about."
Despite his affiliation, Malvasi said he is sometimes uneasy with Yorktown's model: In seeking to counter academia's liberal bias, it affirms a political bias of its own instead of getting students to engage with other ideas.
"This," Malvasi said, "is my great secret fear when I think about this stuff at midnight: that it will contribute to this growing polarization, not only politically but culturally and intellectually and that we're really going to become a kind of Balkanized state."