Bryan College & Academic Freedom in an Age of Commencement Dis-invitations

Posted on May 23, 2014 by

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To have academic freedom or not to have academic freedom–is that really the question?

Recent news is littered with stories of academic freedom. Bryan College, my alma mater, is in turmoil over a clarification to its doctrinal statement (as well as other issues, I am sure). By attempting to solidify its position on Creation, the college elaborated one of its doctrinal points to clarify that it views Adam and Eve as actual, physical people. As such, two professors, who would not agree to the clarification, were fired. They have decided to sue. Apparently, even the august The New York Times felt compelled to weigh in here.

Cedarville University, my current employer, was also referenced in the Times article, primarily as an example of strife on evangelical campuses. The most recent kerfuffle involving Cedarville revolves around the administration’s decision to prevent an underground student newspaper from distributing its product on campus. The Huffington Post, naturally, found the cornfields of Ohio of sufficient interest to lob a grenade in our direction.

I find myself, then, in a happy nexus of ignominy. Joy.

Controversies at Christian colleges spark the kind of media fervor formerly reserved for political assassinations–and the reason why is not much of a mystery. They feed a simple narrative. We are odd. We don’t abide by the same rules. We are often deliberately out of step with the broader academic culture. This makes us, those who live in literal or metaphysical “fly over” country, ripe targets. We get it.

The most popular accusation is that we do not appropriately safeguard academic freedom. The insinuation is that we do not provide students with a proper education because we are not allowed to pursue truth from a variety of angles. (My more than able colleague here at Bereans@TheGate, Marc Clauson, tackled some of the philosophical matters here. I encourage those interested in that approach to read the article thoroughly.) There are only two proper response for such a charge: Rubbish! Beyond that, “HAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Though it is tempting to leave it at that, permit me to elaborate briefly. First, let us deal with the Rubbish. The charge is silly because it assumes something that does not meaningfully exist. No institution of higher learning that I know of exists without either explicit or implicit boundaries, or definitions of what is deemed “reasonable” inquiry, for faculty. Though secular institutions might proclaim full academic freedom, does any sentient being pretend this is true? Maybe I missed it, but mainstream, elite academia has largely closed itself off from the following perspectives:

  • pro-life
  • traditional perspectives on marriage
  • the possibility of the appropriate use of military force
  • the philosophical, literary, political, legal, and scientific glories of western civilization, particularly as compared to other civilizations
  • political conservatism (as defined by the American use of the term)
  • Religiously based arguments as they relate to normative questions
  • Traditional interpretations of literary works that focus on authorial intentions or meaning

I am perfectly willing to stand corrected, and I do not teach on one of these campuses. However, I did earn one M.A. and a Ph.D. at a secular institution (University of Georgia) and I taught briefly at another (I was a one-year visiting professor at Tulane University). I had great experiences at both places, and I never felt discriminated against in any way whatsoever. My interactions with professors, both as a student and colleague, were completely absent of strife. At the same time, I think the above things were largely accurate descriptions of the campus cultures. While teaching, I did my best to offer students a wide range of perspectives on important questions for my discipline. I did expose them to both progressive and conservative political thinking when appropriate, and I contrasted various interpretations of constitutional questions, both those I agreed with and those I did not. I saw that as my proper function in those environments.

There is nothing inherently wrong with some academic boundaries. Not every view is worth consideration, at least in my mind. I know the slopes, they get slippery, but that is a poor argument. Institutions have to make decisions about how they are going to live up to their obligations to students, parents, donors, and other constituents. For me, the biggest concern is that institutions act with integrity when they present themselves to prospective students and parents. As long as everyone knows where the institution stands, I have no issue with it. This is not “academic freedom” as it is so often assumed to exist.

For a culture to be fully open to all reasonable modes of inquiry, one would expect more intellectual diversity on our secular campuses. Of course, the standard responses are, “well, conservatives are stupid,” or “obviously, Christians are stupid,” so they can’t cut it in those environments. Those responses are manifestly idiotic. The best explanation is, for me, not that universities actively discriminate against conservatives or orthodox Christians, or that these groups are somehow dumber on average, but there is a large amount of self-selection at work. I was asked to apply for a tenure-track post at Tulane, and I decided against it. Why? New Orleans is a difficult place to raise a family, and I was not sure, even if I got the job, I would be the best fit for the department’s or university’s culture. The lack of a good fit makes tenure more difficult, of course, but it also requires swimming against the tide every day. I think some folks are cut out for that. I am not sure I am one of them.

Second, the explosive laughter. I fully enjoy the irony of being lectured to about academic freedom while “objectionable” commencement speakers are dis-invited across the country, seemingly at record pace. Just to run down a brief list (thanks to NY Mag for the handy summary) of those dis-invited and the responsible university or college:

  • Christine Lagarde–the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund–Smith
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali–activist, feminist, occasional critic of Islam–Brandeis
  • Robert Birgeneau–former chancellor of University of California, Berkeley–Haverford
  • Eric Walsh–Pasadena’s Public Health Director and pastor–Pasadena City College
  • Condoleezza Rice–former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor–Rutgers
  • Charles Murray–American Enterprise Institute scholar, general wonk–Azusa Pacific (not a commencement address)

All of these dis-invitations had to do with political differences that were deemed intolerable by either students, faculty, or others affiliated with the institutions. While places like Cedarville and Bryan are criticized for our doctrinal positions, one can just as easily critique the academy for demanding a different sort of purity. The issues do not stop with speakers. There are publicized problems for others who have expressed opinions contrary to orthodoxy. A UC Santa Barbara professor was charged with theft, battery, and vandalism for attacking pro-life demonstrators who were within the “free-speech zone” on campus. (Do I have to point out the hypocrisy at work when places like Cedarville are criticized for denying academic freedom even though supposedly free campuses feel compelled to box controversial views into a “free-speech zone?”) Mike Adams, a conservative, was denied promotion at UNC Wilmington due, seemingly, to his expressed political opinions. Adams sued the university and won. Rebecca Schuman, at Slate, wrote in defense of Adams, though she still felt compelled to disagree, stringently, with his political views in the process.

Are these isolated instances? Probably. We should not draw firm conclusions about all of academia based on my perceptions, these dis-invitations, or other instances of harassment. I know and respect many people in the academic world, both at Christian institutions and others. They, regardless of their political or social bent, are excellent professors who take pride in exposing students to a variety of perspectives, both those they agree with and those they do not. At the same time, those professors, routinely, make their own thoughts clear. They do not dodge or shirk the best answers or arguments when they draw conclusions or when they are directly asked. They do this with integrity and honesty and I admire them for it.

But, guess what? I try to do the same thing. Please, do not judge us based on some controversies, harassments, or false impressions. The reality is, when it comes to academic freedom, we all live in glass houses.

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Posted in: Education