Instead, two equally controversial men - liberal University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill and conservative author David Horowitz - put on a genial display of good manners and polysyllabic brilliance Thursday night in a much-hyped debate about ideology in the classroom.
Organizers billed the event on stage at George Washington University as "Academia's Royal Rumble."
The two combatants struck each another with the longest words they could find - many of them so long they would not fit in a standard reporter's notebook.
But the closest thing to a body blow came when Churchill reared back and smacked Horowitz with the line: "It's like you're rowing with one oar, David."
That strike caused trembles of laughter in the crowd. But the rest of the night - and its topic - could not have been more serious.
The night's question: Can politics be taken out of the classroom - and should it be?
Horowitz unleashed the first attack, prefacing it with the remark: "The answer is, yes it should and of course it can."
He then lashed out at the liberal elites he believes have hijacked academia. He denounced women's studies programs as little more than recruiting grounds for "radical feminists." He denounced "social justice" teachings as socialist indoctrination. And he decried classroom mention of "institutional racism" as "the fantasy of the left."
"Whole fields have developed," Horowitz argued. "They are ideological fields. They are not academic fields."
The bottom line about teachers, he said, is "you don't get a lifetime job for expressing an opinion. You get a lifetime job for having an expertise."
It was a clear allusion to Churchill's ongoing fight to keep his tenure at CU in the wake of a top-to-bottom review of his academic credentials that began after he wrote a controversial online essay about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Churchill was widely denounced for the essay, which referred to some people who died at the World Trade Centers as "little Eichmanns" who were complicit in a deadly U.S. foreign policy that inspired the attacks.
A CU committee is investigating alleged research misconduct against Churchill and is expected to conclude its work by May 9.
Churchill spent little time discussing his own case, but said such inquiries into academic standards only seem to happen when someone dares question the status quo or officially sanctioned "predetermined truth."
He said teaching critical thinking requires professors to inject their unique points of view.
"There is no consensus. There is no homogeneity. There is no truth, and that is what the issue here is," he said.
If people think there's a calibrated machine that spits out all the objective, true answers, "This is a myth," he said. "It is a myth that precludes critical thought."
Sensing a conservative bent in the crowd, Churchill tried to turn the tables. He argued that free market principles give students the ability to drop university electives if they don't like a professor's ideology.
Horowitz counterpunched, saying, "Students are a captive audience. You can't just go 'Caveat emptor,' Latin for 'Let the buyer beware.' "
In one colorful exchange, Churchill told a story about being in the eighth grade in Illinois in 1960 and casting a vote for the socialist candidate in a mock presidential election.
"I didn't know what a socialist was," he said. "It just sounded like a cool thing to do."
He said teachers gave him detention for two weeks. "Now that is indoctrination," he said.
Horowitz made the least scholarly attack of the night, saying of Overland High School geography teacher Jay Bennish: "The point here is that teacher is an ignoramus."
Bennish came under fire after a student secretly recorded him calling the United States the most violent nation on earth and comparing some of President Bush's remarks to those of Adolf Hitler.
The student, Sean Allen, sat in the back of the audience, receiving loud applause from the pro-Horowitz part of the crowd.
The audience of more than 200 students was split between Horowitz and Churchill camps and mostly well-behaved.
Afterward, 19-year-old College Republican Michael Keough said he was surprised that Churchill seemed so well-behaved.
"I think he knew the crowd he was playing to," said Keough, a political science and history major at George Washington University.
Christian Wright, the 22-year-old founder of the university's Student International Socialist Organization, was less charitable toward Horowitz.
"I think Horowitz is full of it," he said.
Back and forth
Highlights of debate Thursday night between Ward Churchill and David Horowitz.
• Addressing conservatives in the crowd: "The idea (that) the almighty federal government, the state, is going to legislate how courses are taught seems to be anti-conservative to me."
• Calling for truth in advertising for professors: "The political stance of the instructor should be known. It should be advertised. It should be signaled up front."
• On professors: "The purpose of a professor is to profess - not simply to impart information."
• Denouncing opinionated teachers: "When a teacher becomes a political advocate in the classroom and inflicts that . . . opinion on students, that violates the student's academic freedom."
• Saying educators must stick to objective facts: "If you're applying for a job as a professor of astronomy and in the interview you express your belief in astrology, you might not get that job."
• On opinionated teachers: "When you go to the doctor, you don't expect to get an opinion on the war in Iraq. Why should you get it from your English teacher?"