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'Excalibur' writers reveal themselves

BY Spencer Durham - sdurham@chronicle-tribune.com

The authors of a conservative, anonymous newsletter at Taylor University came forward publicly this past week after criticism from the campus community.

Titled “Excalibur,” the first issue of the newsletter was distributed around campus earlier in February. The newsletter detailed the beliefs held by the “conservative underground” at the university. Topics discussed included pro-life, creationism and a conservative-libertarian approach for race relations.

The authors related current-day social justice movements to false prophets, using passages in the Bible to make their case. The newsletter was also critical of liberal-progressive ideas and cited a lack of representation with their more conservative beliefs on campus via the classroom, chapel services and invited speakers.

The first newsletter was met with a divided response from campus. While some viewed it as a conversation starter, others were critical of the content, arguing that it targeted minority and liberal students.

President Lowell Haines sent a campus-wide email on Feb. 23 in which he criticized the authors for remaining anonymous, a sentiment expressed by many on campus.

According to Jim Garringer, director of media relations for Taylor, there were four authors. They are James Spiegel, professor of philosophy and religion, Richard Smith, professor of biblical studies, and staff members Ben Wehling and Gary Ross. Ross is the head coach of Taylor’s men’s soccer team.

Garringer said the authors came forward publicly online either on March 4 or 5. A few days later the website was taken down.

Spiegel said the website will act as the archives for past issues and additional content that is not included in the newsletter. Spiegel, through email, confirmed that the website was taken down but will reappear when the second issue is released, presumably later this month.

The professor said the website is down temporarily to “let some of the dust settle.”

Smith could not be reached by phone, nor did he respond to an email by press time.

Spiegel said the list of authors associated with “Excalibur” will grow as he expects more to contribute to the newsletter. The professor said the authors had every intention of coming forward publicly, but did so sooner than they initially expected.

“We did always intend to reveal our identities, though the original plan was to wait a few months,” he wrote in an email to the CT. “But since critical response to our anonymity was distracting people from the content of the newsletter, we thought it best to go public earlier than planned.”

In the first issue, it was stated the authors chose to remain anonymous as to not draw attention away from the content. Many at Taylor felt the exact opposite.

Garringer stated after the initial release of “Excalibur” that anonymity did not allow for proper discussion of the ideas and critiques expressed in the newsletter.

“It opens the door to be able to have conversation with them,” he said of the authors coming forward. “I always think it’s better when people with differing opinions can have a conversation.”

Spiegel said topics will vary in coming editions of “Excalibur” and hopes now that authors have come forward there will be more focus on the group’s purpose and ideas, instead of the anonymity.

“Although it has been controversial thus far, because of our initial anonymity, we believe it will indeed accomplish the purposes we intend it to,” he said.

Taylor alumni have also been critical of the newsletter. The CT obtained a link to an online letter penned by alumni of the university. The letter critiques the arguments and ideas presented in “Excalibur.” As of early Friday morning, more than 60 Taylor alumni had signed the letter.

Andrew Draper, professor of theology, was another member of the Taylor community that was critical of the anonymity of the initial newsletter.

“It saddened me in the way in which Excalibur was distributed anonymously,” he said. “The environment created on campus with anonymity was problematic.”

Draper said some of the ideas in original newsletter targeted students of color, specifically the author’s views on rule of law and critical race theory. Critical race theory argues that institutional racism is prevalent in culture and that the legal system disproportionately affects people of color.

Haines also noted in his email a “lack of foresight and sensitivity” in how the newsletter could have impacted students of color.

Draper said that although fellow professors wrote the content in “Excalibur,” it doesn’t change any interaction between he and his colleagues.

“We have a mutual respect for one another,” he said, noting that there have been times in the past where he and other professors have disagreed on certain issues.

“I trust we can have a civil dialogue about things,” he added.