The Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education (Skinner)

Consider No EvilEarlier this summer I wrote here on the blog about Dr. Brandon Withrow, a historian of Christianity who lost his faith while teaching at a faith-based institution. What made his situation unique is that he decided to be open about his loss of faith and leave his full-time position without causing a controversy. After reading his story, I contacted Brandon and had the privilege of Skyping with him about his journey and a host of other things. During the course of our conversation, I became aware of his most recent book (co-authored with Menachem Wecker), Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education (Eugene, OR: Cascade). Last week Brandon graciously sent along a copy of the book and I was so engrossed that I read it within the first two days. (By the way, this never happens. I am usually too busy to drop everything and read straight through ANY book.)

The book takes an in-depth look at some of the problems, pitfalls, and unique features of faith-based higher education here in the United States. The book is divided into four sections, each of which consists of a chapter from Withrow in which he discusses some element of Christian higher education followed by a chapter from Wecker, who then discusses Jewish higher education.

Part One is entitled, “Our Stories.” Here both authors give an in-depth look at their individual backgrounds as they relate to the subject matter of the book. (I should say that the book was written before Withrow lost his faith but surely while that evolution was taking place. It would be interesting to see what he might add to the book today.) Part Two is entitled, “Our Traditions” and discusses the rise of Christian and Jewish universities, respectively. Part Three, entitled “Our Limitations,” was simultaneously the most interesting and troublesome part of the book. I was especially interested in Chapter 5, “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Academic Freedom,” as it dealt with so many of the controversies that have led to the termination of professors here in the US in recent years. The fourth and final part of the book is entitled, “Our Solutions.” Frankly, I found this section to be somewhat depressing because the solutions mostly boil down to future job candidates being mindful of what they’re getting themselves into. In other words, sweeping reform among schools that have the power to make an unwarranted decision to fire a faculty member is unlikely.

Perhaps the most important (and also depressing) insight I gained from this book is the realization that, regardless of the motivation behind terminating a contract, faith-based schools will continue to have the freedom to do so with legal impunity, at least here in the United States. Over and over again, the authors make the point that the courts consider these matters to be religious in nature, and therefore refuse to rule against a school that has terminated a faculty member. This means that such schools can (legitimately or illegitimately) claim that the termination was over an issue of religious import, and the professor in question has no recourse.

I really enjoyed this book and will likely use it (especially Chapter 5) when helping students understand the slippery role of Biblical interpretation in many of the non-essential matters within the life of different denominational groups. I will also recommend this book to those young scholars who are considering pursuing a post at a religiously-affiliated school. There is much to be gained from thinking through the issues Withrow and Wecker point out in the course of their various discussions. We should be grateful for both their wisdom and their honesty.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education (Skinner)

  1. Hi Chris,
    I know this is late, but could I throw in here a different voice as part of a broader theme of academic freedom and faith? I’m busy reading Thomas C. Oden’s A Change of Heart. A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2014). Oden’s reflections on theological developments at particularly Drew University in the 1980s struck me:

    “In the 1980s it seemed that almost every decision had a politically correct component … I supported affirmative action but resisted its abuse. I could not have predicted the high price I would pay … As the seminary became more polarized toward the left, our churches became more nervous about theological education. Yet if anyone talked of accountability of professors to Scripture, tradition or church discipline, howls would arise about academic freedom. The revisionists were gaining ground in the university while losing ground with the grassroots … faculty members were requiring that every new nominee for any faculty position had to pass the feminist litmus test. I who had once thought of myself as sincerely pro-feminist became stereotyped as uninterested in justice. Each new appointment brought the activist majority increased clout until I was a lonely voice amid a chorus of indignant advocates … In many faculty meetings and votes I was the only one who raised questions about the directions in which we were going” (183-84).

    After asking a (gifted feminist) nominee for a new position at the seminary some theological questions, Oden explains how he “paid a high price for asking questions that seemed to [him] central to the decision we were asked to make”. Oden states further:

    “That interview did not dissuade my colleages from organizing ever more insistently to elect new faculty with similar views. Amazingly it became a virtual heresy to raise basic questions about the theological reasoning of any faculty proposed to teach theology. That interview was in my view a pivatol moment in the history of Drew Seminary. As the feminist voice gradually became the majority and feminists were tenured, they gained complete control. It caused every subsequent nominee to be examined largely on the basis of feminist issues: gender language, abortion rights, reproductive rights and sexual ethics” (186).

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