I'm taking part in a faculty discussion today on "teaching controversial issues." In preparation for that meeting, I started to jot down some thoughts on the matter. (I'll be responsible for saying a few words.)
There is a hyper-politicization of higher education today, a hyper-politicization that I want to call "reactionary Foucauldianism." If Foucault's nothing-is-innocent post-structuralism gets marshaled to make arguments about knowledge production as a "power play," the same "metaphysics of power" informs reactionary critiques of academic culture. While Foucault is deployed to challenge "the state" and what he labels "governmentality," reactionary Foucauldianism is a critique of those critics (on similar knowledge/power grounds).
To discuss, say, America's history of imperialism is to practice "communist indoctrination." (Of course, some of this is about the logic and language of punditry. Hyperbolic sound-bites are the coin of our realm, but that seems like very little consolation for a targeted faculty member.)
Everything in academia has become controversial (or potentially controversial) as academics are consistently being asked to defend their ostensibly "liberal" leanings. I know of scholars who don't want to put their syllabi on-line for fear that "others" will troll the Internet, find the document, and use their required reading list to castigate them as ideologues. (And one gets very little traction by pointing out that, ironically enough, unabashed ideologues tend to be the folks most interested in such ideological witch-hunting.)
The increasing hegemony of a think tank counter-academy is also part of the discussion, especially when their powerful publishing arms produce best-selling books by circumventing the so-called "leftist" mainstream.
I teach quite a bit about race and religion, both of which are hot-button topics, growing more and more controversial by the semester. Any discussion of "religion" as something that is social, cultural and political (invariably how anthropologists frame their takes on the sacred) bleeds quite easily into the traps of partisan electoral politics vis-a-vis questions about the "war on terror," "Islamic Fundamentalism," and the "Christian Right" (just to name three of the most obvious ones).
For many people, any talk about race at all is an example of racism. Period. According to some, it is the only contemporary manifestation of racism worth noting. This idea that race-talk is an instantiation of racism (nothing more) can mean that a curricular offering on the topic is only ever a venue for preaching to the choir and supposedly damning the unbelievers. Defensiveness (about being dismissed as a "liberal") meets defensiveness (about being labeled a "racist"), which doesn't make for particularly constructive conversations.