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Behind Yale University's serene Gothic architecture, professors have been battling over a pot of gold and a course of Western civilization.

Lee Bass, a 1979 Yale graduate from Texas, gave his alma mater $20 million in 1991 to create a course of study on the ancient thinkers, artists, and other figures who shaped the Western European culture from which modern American society stems.

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More than three years later, the course hasn't yet been designed.

Conservative students and professors say they suspect liberals are behind the delay, suggesting they want to block a course that emphasizes the achievements of white men and minimizes the contributions of women and minorities.

Yale President Richard Levin is trying to squelch such theories and says plans for the money should be announced soon.

The issue became public after a student, writing in a conservative student magazine, accused Mr. Levin of bowing to pressures from liberal professors and implied that Yale gave other courses, such as Asian-American history and gay and lesbian studies, a higher priority.

''There were serious behind-the-scenes efforts to co-opt the money for liberal causes,'' Pat Collins, a junior from Tustin, Calif, wrote in the magazine.

Yale spokesman Gary Fryer denied any such scheme existed.

''We already have enormously rich and robust offerings in Western civilization,'' Mr. Fryer says, pointing out some 100 related courses. ''The question is, what is the right approach to enhance the Western-civilization curriculum further?''

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The debate comes in the midst of budget concerns. Levin has instituted a five-year plan to eliminate a $12 million deficit, in part through a hiring freeze on new teachers.

Levin says he has questions about the size of the classes and other aspects of the proposed program. The college president met privately with Mr. Bass in Texas last month and said the encounter was ''cordial, thorough, and productive.'' Bass has been publicly silent about the debate. Meanwhile, the school has received several hundred letters from alumni expressing concern about the program's future.

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