Texas man endows first professorship of secular studies at a public university: UT Austin

You may already know that the country’s first—and still, I think, only—college program in Secular Studies is at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, founded by the estimable sociologist Phil Zuckerman. (You can see the curriculum here.)

Well, as the Austin Statesman (should they change it to “Statesperson”?) reported yesterday, The University of Texas at Austin has now received a $1 million endowment from a long-time secularist to fund a faculty position in secular research. It’s not a program, nor even a position for a new faculty member, but a lucrative chair for an existing UTA faculty member. And it’s the first endowed chair for secular research at a public university in the U.S. (They may exist in other countries, but I don’t know.)

Click on the screenshot to read the story.

Bolton somehow managed to accumulate a lot of money as a professor, which is unusual but, in this case, useful (he may have been independently wealthy). From the paper:

A Georgetown resident who has never set foot on the University of Texas campus has given $1 million to the school for a new professorship to focus on a growing segment of the U.S. population that holds no religious views.

The endowment is coming from Brian Bolton, 80, who is retired after a 35-year career in academia. He was an assistant professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology from 1968 to 1971. From 1971 to 2002, Bolton was a professor of rehabilitation and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas.

Bolton said he has never visited UT but shares common values with the educational institution. “My 35-year career was dedicated to scholarship and research in academia,” he said. “I know UT is a great university, and that’s all I need to know.”

Bolton said he wanted to donate the money to make a lasting impact.

What’s curious about this report are three issues. First, a million bucks is enough to endow a new professor, but they’re going to choose somebody already on the faculty. I doubt that there would be someone already there who’s doing “secular studies” in the manner of Zuckerman.

The indented statements are from the Statesman piece:

UT will not be hiring a new professor for Bolton’s endowment but will choose one who is already on the faculty, said Justin Michalka, the executive director of development for the College of Liberal Arts. The university has not yet chosen who that will be, he said.

Second, the University’s director of development is curiously silent about Bolton’s endowment:

Michalka declined to comment further on Bolton’s donation.

Finally, the paper says there’s a university news release on Bolton’s endowment, but I can’t find it (my emphasis):

“During the past two decades there has been significant increase in the U.S. among those who associate with a secular worldview, a trend particularly pronounced in younger people, prompting increased research in this emerging field,” according to a university news release on Bolton’s endowment.

I’m sufficiently cynical to think that they’ve deep-sixed that statement (readers can see if it’s on the Internet), and are playing down the endowment. Perhaps they like the dosh, but secularism, while it may play well in Austin, isn’t particularly popular in the rest of Texas. Or so I think, and I’d be glad to be proven wrong. The reader who sent me the link to the newspaper piece is contacting the reporter to try to find the university statement.

Bolton’s endowment has already been announced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which recounts his generous support of their organization—also implying that Bolton has a source of money beyond an academic salary.

Brian Bolton is a longtime Life Member, for whom the executive wing of FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, is named, due to his support of FFRF’s headquarters expansion. Bolton has also singlehandedly underwritten for a decade now FFRF’s essay contest for grad/older students, with up to $10,000 prize money in total. And he is financing a bible accountability project to call attention to the continuing harm of the bible to society that includes subsidization of the cost of mailing FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel’s recent book, The Founding Myth, to every member of Congress last fall. FFRF will be publishing Bolton’s new work, tentatively titled Why the Bible Is Not a Good Book, this year. Bolton, who lives in Texas, will be speaking briefly at FFRF’s annual convention in San Antonio in November.

“Now, the best public university in an immensely important state has a researcher focusing on a woefully neglected segment of the population,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And it’s all thanks to Brian Bolton, who has been munificently boosting the secular movement.”

I’ve been to that new executive wing; it’s lovely, and must have cost a pretty penny. Here’s a photo I took when I visited in March of 2018:

By the way, if you’re ever in Madison, you must visit the headquarters. You can even pose with the life-sized statue of Darwin, as I did. It’s amazingly lifelike:

But enough about the money; here’s some more stuff about Bolton from the FFRF:

Bolton is a retired academic psychologist with a background in mathematics, statistics and psychometrics. His contributions in psychological measurement, personality assessment and rehabilitation psychology have been recognized by universities and psychological societies. His 10 edited and authored books include Handbook of Measurement and Evaluation in Rehabilitation, Psychosocial Adjustment to Disability, Rehabilitation Counseling: Theory and Practice, and Special Education and Rehabilitation Testing: Current Practices and Test Reviews. He is a licensed psychologist, Humanist minister, Karate black belt, and Distinguished Toastmaster.

If you want to read even more, nine years ago the FFRF featured an interview about Bolton on its “Meet A Member” feature. A few excerpts:

Where I’m headed: The same terminal condition as all sentient life forms — eternal nonexistence or everlasting nothingness.

Person in history I admire: Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant statesman and intellectual whose numerous accomplishments helped establish the robust government under which we thrive today.

A quotation I like: “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.” (George Washington, 1792 letter to Edward Newenham)

These are a few of my favorite things: Supporting animal welfare and environmental protection, reading philosophy and science, writing freethought articles, and raising African leopard tortoises.

These are not: FOX News, religious fundamentalism, sports evangelism, conservative politics.

How long I’ve been a freethinker: All my life.

Why I’m a freethinker: Even though I attended Sunday school as a child, my soul was never captured. My transition from indifferent unbeliever to outspoken nontheist was brought about by Falwell, LaHaye and Swaggart.

He’s an animal and environment lover, too—a fellow after my own heart! We’re still digging to find out of the University of Texas deleted the announcement of the donation, and I’ll report back.

h/t: Reese

34 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Next hurdle: scoring big on the diversity statement.

    (Half sarcastically – I don’t know if UT Austin will or already adapted such a statement).

  2. Mark Joseph
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    My transition from indifferent unbeliever to outspoken nontheist was brought about by Falwell, LaHaye and Swaggart.

    Ha ha ha ha ha! I do believe the fine gentleman has just won himself a shiny new “zinger of the week” award!

  3. merilee
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Yay!

  4. nay
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Q: What is “sports evangelism”? (Will Google it also.)

  5. rickflick
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    It’s great to know there are people of means who are on the right side of things. Sometimes you get the feeling that only people like Charles Koch and Rush Limbaugh have any influence.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Kudos to Bolton!

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 8, 2020 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Watch out there, fella; that’s Presidential-Medal-of-Freedom-winner Rush Limbaugh to you!

      Dafuq kinda reality-show SOTU speech was that, anyway? String of lies followed a series of special guest appearances.

  6. ploubere
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    There is a backstory here yet to be revealed. He clearly didn’t make a million from adjunct/assistant prof pay, and why UT Austin, of all places, to which he has no apparent connection? And did he attach any conditions to prevent them from misdirecting the funds?

  7. Posted February 8, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I think this will be interesting. I went to UT, was a TA and tutor there, and lived in Austin a long time (and I was the UT system chancellor’s yard boy for a year or so…), and I can testify that the state legislature is full of god-fearing liberal-hating legislators who will not take kindly to this. The UT president is usually a far-right Republican also. And many of the students are from rural Texas where religious fundamentalism is very strong.

    Though it is a strange choice, it is also an impactful choice,for the same reasons.

    • Posted February 8, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      This was meant as a reply to #6.

    • Posted February 8, 2020 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Still, maybe that is why he did it. Its like hosting the American Atheists Conference at Liberty University.

      • Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that’s what I was suggesting. At UT this will have more impact. If it were at Harvard it would be “preaching to the choir” if you’ll pardon the expression.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 8, 2020 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if he picked UT-Austin for these reasons, so as to cause Texas Movers and Shakers (more than) a bit of cognitive dissonance, or some such thing. (Am reminded of the monkey jar thing – can get its hand in, can’t get it’s grasping fist out.)

  8. AlTazim
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    So what exactly is “secular studies”? Reading the description of the Pitzer program, it sounds the same as “sociology/anthropology of religion”, but in regards to secular people and institutions instead of traditional religious ones. I wouldn’t think that this necessarily advances secularism, for much the same reason that studying sociology/anthropology/history of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other religion wins converts and advances the cause of that religion.

    • Posted February 8, 2020 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      “So what exactly is ‘secular studies’?”

      I was about to ask the same thing. It seems to me that secularism is dependent on religion for its existence in a way that religion is not dependent on secularism. That is, if there were no secularism, religion courses would look about the same, but if there were no religion (happily, not as hard to imagine as when Lennon wrote “Imagine”), what would courses in secularism look like?

      Is this a concern for secularists?

      • rickflick
        Posted February 8, 2020 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

        I was wondering that too. It occurred to me that secularism studies should not exist in most of Europe since religion has lost a lot of influence. Few people would care. In the US religion continues to push itself on us politically. The studies, then, should examine how secularism has gotten as far as it has under a lot of resistance. Read Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby, and you’ll see that it’s been a long and interesting struggle.

  9. Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps an academic can explain this to me. If UT uses Bolton’s money to fund an existing professorship, won’t that essentially allow them to circumvent its secular requirement? They could simply pick the most secular professor to receive it and then take the money they would have paid that professor and spend it elsewhere. What am I not seeing here?

    • Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

      You are right, but the endowed chair licks the position in place in a way more protected and permanent than it is now. Given the political climate in Texas today, he must feel that is important.

      That is the way universities, churches and such groups work.

  10. sshort
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    i think he means athletes thanking god for victories, pointing heavenward after plays, “Tebowing” and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, etc.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Reminds me of Johan Cruyff (arguably the greatest footballer ever) when coaching Barcelona: “In Spain all 22 players make the sign of the cross before they enter the pitch. If it works all matches must therefore end in a draw.”

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted February 8, 2020 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Also note that these players pointing their finger up after scoring a goal or a try, might just as well point down. After a few (12) hours the direction is about opposite anyway. Or is G*d circling around the Earth above football or rugby matches?

        • loren russell
          Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

          The earth is flat, otherwise no heaven or hell. Read Genesis!

        • Barbara Radcliffe
          Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

          Umm. With which finger do they point up??? Sorry if this is too rude.

  11. Mark R.
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Person in history I admire: Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant statesman and intellectual whose numerous accomplishments helped establish the robust government under which we thrive today.

    Ah, a what difference 9 years can make. I felt like that when Obama was POTUS as well. Today, not so much.

    • Mark R.
      Posted February 8, 2020 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      …what a difference…

    • Filippo
      Posted February 8, 2020 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      I remember Obama saying, “those (working class) jobs (in China, etc.) aren’t coming back.”

      Read today in the NY Times that the auto industry is “squirming” on account of the coronavirus’s effect on auto parts manufacturing and transportation logistics in China. I reasonably gather that they wouldn’t be so much squirming had theses jobs not been off shored.

      I also recall his encouraging students to study/enter STEM fields so as to create innovative goods and services. Easy enough for a JD-type (and corporate MBA and Economist and other non-STEM types for that matter) to tell others what lower-paying career fields they ought to enter.

  12. Posted February 8, 2020 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    What is the difference between an atheist and an “outspoken nontheist”?

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    “… a background in mathematics, statistics and psychometrics … a licensed psychologist, Humanist minister, Karate black belt, and Distinguished Toastmaster” plus “… an animal and environment lover, too” — makes him as a polymath and jolly good fellow in my book (though I’m not sure an endowed chair is the most efficacious use of a million bucks).

    FWIW, Austin is a cool town in my book, too. I tried a case in federal court there once, and stuck around for a few days afterward just to hang out. It’s got a great music and cinema scene. And for comedic relief, there’s always the Texas lege, as Molly Ivins used to call it back when the state gov in Austin was her beat.

    • Posted February 8, 2020 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      There was never a dull moment in that legislature. Molly had an endless source of material to work with.

  14. W.Benson
    Posted February 8, 2020 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    “Even though I attended Sunday school as a child, my soul [mind] was never captured.” Sounds familiar. Hats off to Mr. Bolton.

  15. Posted February 8, 2020 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    I could not see shat department the chair will be in. lt appears to me that it will be in the department of psychology. A psychologist researching people who are not religious. The research and conclusions should be interesting and useful.

  16. ...
    Posted February 13, 2020 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    Did anybody find that university press release?

    • Posted February 13, 2020 at 4:03 am | Permalink

      There was one on paper but we’re trying to find out if it was ever online. It doesn’t seem to have been, but we’re asking the University.


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