Academic Freedom: Do Religious Universities Shape Up?
Tatum, Lynn, Conscience
THIS JOURNAL HAS BEEN DESCRIBED as Catholic, pro-choice, and pro-feminist; I, however, teach at Baptist Baylor University, which is not particularly prochoice, would rarely be described as feminist, and is certainly not Catholic. How can I do this without getting fired ... or at least my pay docked? Academic freedom. But while I am assuming that the following article will fit into my university's views of what constitutes academic freedom, do all academics in the United States experience such freedoms--including and especially those at religious universities? The question is particularly pressing at Catholic universities which have, due to the acceptance of Ex corde Ecclesiae in 2001, been in the forefront of recent debates on the issue.
Though professors and academics often talk about academic freedom and its importance, if pressed on the issue, few could actually give a clear definition of what academic freedom is. They just "know it when they see it," or, to be more accurate, "they know it when they don't see it." The closest that one can get to an "official" definition of academic freedom is the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. This statement was jointly produced by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), the professional organization of college administrators. Thus it is a statement of principle that was jointly formulated by both faculty (AAUP) and administrators (AACU) and has been endorsed by virtually every major American academic organization. The statement is referenced specifically, and by name, in hundreds of university handbooks, including those of many Catholic universities. However, it is a document that lays out principles for protecting academic freedom, rather than precisely defining academic freedom.
Thus the definition that follows is my own; though I believe it comports well with the 1940 Statement: Academic freedom is the right, indeed the obligation, of professors to teach, read and research on the best that is known in their field without fear of inappropriate, non-academic interference. Or as one acquaintance of mine has described it: "studying and teaching without blinders on."
Academic freedom is not, by the way, the same thing as freedom of speech. It is simultaneously both narrower and broader. Freedom of speech is broader in the sense that it covers all types of speech: artistic, political, social, commercial, etc. Academic freedom, however, covers only academic speech. But in another sense freedom of speech is narrower. Freedom of speech only protects you from actions by the government. In other words, if you call the president of the United States the "handmaid of the anti-Christ," the government can't put you in jail. However, if your church doesn't like what you say, it can kick you out; your spouse can divorce you; and your children can refuse to be seen with you in public. Freedom of speech only protects you against actions by the state. Academic freedom, on the other hand, strives to protect the professor against actions from any improper, non-academic source. Sometimes professors must be protected from their own university administrations and sometimes they must be protected from their own church or denomination.
So what does it mean to say that academic freedom only covers academic speech? It means that a professor does not have a right to say just anything. For example, a professor does not have the academic freedom right to use racial slurs, or to deny the Holocaust, or to physically threaten friends or students. Nor does academic freedom protect "stupid speech." A professor does not have the academic freedom right to assert that the moon is made of "green cheese," or to advocate that the earth is flat, or that the sun goes round the earth. Such ideas are wrong, and have no place in the academy. Academic freedom doesn't mean you can say just anything. It must be factually accurate and well-informed.
Academic freedom is also generally viewed as discipline specific. That is, a math professor does not have an academic freedom right to hold forth on political science, or chemistry or religion. Our math prof, for example, has no right to begin each class with an anti-abortion tirade (or, for that matter, a prochoice tirade). Nor can a political science professor pontificate that 2 + 2 = II. Interestingly enough, a math professor can get by with the seemingly bizarre statement that 2 + 2 = II. While such an assertion may seem absurd to you and me, my mathematics colleagues assure me that in certain alternative number bases, 2 + 2 does equal II. Which is why academic freedom must be discipline specific--what may sound absurd to an outsider, may in fact be accepted knowledge to those within the discipline.
Many laypeople wonder why in a free country like America, we need academic freedom? The answer is to safeguard new knowledge and new discoveries. The modern university has three main tasks: 1) the transmission of knowledge (teaching); 2) the discovery of new knowledge (research); and 3) quality control (grading and granting of degrees). In all three of these areas, the professor needs protections against improper "outside" interference. However, the safeguards of academic freedom most importantly relate to research and teaching. Why? Research is the discovery of new knowledge, and teaching (at its best) is the transmission of knowledge, including innovative ideas. And there is the rub--all new knowledge is controversial. Let me repeat that: All new knowledge is controversial. Why is it controversial? Because certain people and certain institutions have always "bought into" the status quo. New knowledge threatens their identity, their political security, or their financial viability. In the real world, new knowledge has impact: medical research threatens the tobacco companies; sociological research threatens prison contractors; psychological research threatens the marketing niche of drug companies. In other words, there will always be forces outside the academy that want to squelch the truth or suppress new knowledge.
PROTECTING ACADEMIC FREEDOM
So how do we protect the pursuit of truth and knowledge? With tenure. The concept of tenure is badly misunderstood by the general public. The common misperception is that tenure is a promise of lifetime appointment--the great guarantor of deadwood in the classroom. This is not the case. Tenure does not grant lifetime appointment. Tenure grants the presumption of continual employment based upon the continuing good performance of the professor. Tenured professors can be fired. Indeed, if they are bad professors, they should be fired. Tenure is merely a subtle, but important shift in the burden of proof of good performance. The procedures and principles are laid out in the 1940 Statement previously mentioned.
The basic principles of tenure are that all potential long-term, full-rime faculty are hired "on probation," or to use the proper academic term, "tenure-track." The newly hired professor is typically titled "assistant professor." And for the next seven years the tenure-track professor is on probation. The professor is reviewed annually by students and colleagues. During these seven years, the university can terminate the process for any legal reason that is not violative of academic freedom. (There are a multitude of reasons why a faculty member and a particular university don't form a good "match.") And throughout this process, each year the professor has to demonstrate or "prove" why the university should continue the appointment. If the university, for whatever reason, should choose not to continue, the process ends and the professor's contract ends.
But at the end of seven years, a decision must be made by the university. The typical assistant professor will by now have received hundreds, maybe even thousands of student reviews; there will have been dozens of faculty reviews, administrative assessments, tenure committee hearings, etc. After reviewing all the relevant material, the candidate's department, the university's administration, and a university-wide committee must make a decision. Either the candidate meets the qualifications of being a member of the university's permanent faculty, or they must be denied tenure and find employment elsewhere.
Tenure is merely a presumption of reemployment. When contracts are handed out each year, tenured professors can assume that they will receive one. If the university chooses not to renew their contract, the university must do two things: one, they must state clearly the reasons for the non-renewal; and two, there must be a faculty hearing in which the university demonstrates before a committee of the professor's peers that the reasons for non-renewal are accurate and demonstrated.
It is important because it forces the university to state the reasons for terminating a member of the faculty. This is the fundamental bulwark that protects academic freedom. All universities, and indeed all academics, give at least verbal assent to the crucial importance of academic freedom. No university will admit that it fired a professor because a rich donor did not like the professor's writings, or because a large corporation withheld a major grant in reaction to a professor's research into questionable behavior at that corporation. It would be all too easy for a university to quietly accede to the demands of a corporation, or a rich donor, or a group of vocal alums or other constituents, and to fire "bothersome" faculty members.
We should not forget that AAUP was founded in the aftermath of a scandal wherein the widow of a wealthy donor to a major Californian university managed to get a faculty member fired because he criticized the economic ideas of her late husband. I hesitate to mention this California university's name, but the name of the wealthy widow was Mrs. Leland Stanford. If major universities are subject to the pressures of donors, envisage the stresses that small liberal arts colleges have to endure. We can only imagine what would happen if a young assistant professor of theology (or even business) at the new Ave Maria University in Florida dared propose ideas that came into conflict with those of Catholic founder, Thomas Monaghan.
Tenure, however, demands that any dismissals of tenured faculty must be openly done, publicly defended and properly adjudicated. Without tenure, our universities will become the captives of commercial, financial, institutional and religious forces that are more interested in perpetuating their own prejudices, presuppositions and interests, rather than discovering truth and new knowledge.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AT CATHOLIC INSTITUTIONS
In American religious higher education there is an unmistakable trend towards secularism. This trajectory, what James Burtchaell has called The Dying of the Light, (1) has been widely discussed and well-documented. (2) We are all aware that Harvard, Yale, Duke, Chicago, Brown, Princeton, etc. all began their existence as religious institutions. While the trend toward secularization is unmistakable, it is not inevitable. Author Robert Benne points to a handful of counter-examples, institutions that posses what he terms Quality with Soul: schools such as Baylor, Calvin College, Wheaton and, of most interest for Catholics, Notre Dame. (3)
In 1990, the Vatican, clearly wanting to keep Catholic colleges and universities in the "Quality with Soul" category, issued the Apostolic Constitution, Ex corde Ecclesiae, ("From the Heart of the Church"). The issuance of Ex corde Ecclesiae initiated a struggle in Catholic higher education that still continues more than a decade later.
The first part of the document discusses the nature and the role of a Catholic university. Protestants and Catholics alike have acclaimed this introduction as a superb delineation of the ideal character of a Christian university.
The controversy over Ex corde Ecclesiae arises over part two, "The Norms." Here the Vatican lays out the juridical rules over how the university is to be kept Catholic; and here Ex corde comes into conflict with the principles of academic freedom. Ex corde insists that "teachers of theological disciplines" receive a mandatum from "the competent ecclesiastical authority." In the United States, this has been determined to be the local bishop. In other words, at least those teaching theology have been placed under the authority of, and made subject to, someone outside the academy. If Ex corde is interpreted strictly, theology professors no longer have tenure, they can be removed at the behest of an ecclesiastical figure, outside the university.
It seems clear that the majority of bishops did not want this authority; it also seems clear that they don't know what to do with it, now that they have it. The exact procedures and guidelines for implementation of the mandatum are notoriously vague. Ex corde neither spells out the exact nature of the mandatum, nor how it is to be bestowed, nor how it is to be removed. The bad news: we have a situation fraught with the potential for abuse.
However, the good news: at least in the US, thus far the initial fears that some orthodoxy-obsessed bishops would close down entire theology departments has not materialized. At least till now, bishops have taken an irenic approach. It has been widely, cynically and probably accurately suggested that the American bishops have been so caught up in some other "issues" (read: sex-scandals) that they have not wanted to take on another controversy by firing renegade theologians.
But we should not forget that Ex corde opens up a potential mechanism for controlling theologians in a way that violates the basic principles of academic freedom. However, thus far, at least in the United States, that potential is more of a threat to the future than a reality in the present.
In summary, academic freedom with its protection of innovation, new knowledge and dissent is the very life-blood of the university. And since the university is society's great incubator of new ideas, academic freedom is vital for all of us. We must all be on guard against any assault upon academic freedom launched from the (well-meaning) "heart of the church."
(1) James Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, WB Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
(2) George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, Oxford University Press, 1994; George Marsden and Bradley Longfield, (eds), The Secularization of the Academy. Oxford University Press, 1992.
(3) Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with their Religious Traditions. WB Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.
DR. LYNN TATUM teaches religion in the Honors College at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, and is a past-president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors.…
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Publication information: Article title: Academic Freedom: Do Religious Universities Shape Up?. Contributors: Tatum, Lynn - Author. Magazine title: Conscience. Volume: 24. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2003. Page number: 41+. © 2008 Catholics for a Free Choice. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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