Campus Religious Conflict SHOULD GO PUBLIC

Article excerpt

A Barnard project moves debates about religion out of the private sphere.

These are difficult times for faculty members and others who are committed to academic freedom. Among a number of examples, consider the following:

* In early 2006, Andrew Jones, an alumnus of the University of California, Los Angeles, offered to pay students to report professors who express "wrong" political views in class. According to the February 13, 2006, issue of The Nation, the incorrect views listed on Jones's Web site included supporting affirmative action and opposing the confirmation of John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court.

* Over the past few years, state legislatures across the country have introduced bills that aim to restrict faculty activity in the name of protecting student freedom.1 A bill introduced earlier this year in Arizona would have required institutions of higher education to provide alternatives if "the course, coursework, learning material, or [class] activity conflict[ed] with the student's beliefs or practices in sex, morality, or religion."

Although such legislative initiatives have thus far failed, they remain a matter for concern, because they use the language of academic freedom in their effort to constrain expression. In so doing, they threaten to turn the meaning of academic freedom away from its traditional sense as the freedom to express diverse viewpoints toward the idea that academic freedom is a freedom from hearing any views that might cause offense. This new meaning is hardly that of a principle supporting free and open inquiry in the academy, nor is it one that supports the enterprise of democracy.

Given this climate, it is vitally important that we defend academic freedom and recall its founding principles. Defense of academic freedom on its own, however, can set up a scenario that has become all too familiar over the past twenty years of "culture wars," in which attack and defense play themselves out in ways that are highly regularized and almost scripted, with little shift in the terrain and no end in sight. Such an impasse makes for a depressing state of affairs. It seems that those of us who support academic freedom are condemned to defend ourselves ad nauseam and to see our own principles repeatedly used against us.

There is another possibility, however. We could take up the challenge of the current moment as an opportunity to rethink the meaning of academic freedom. Too often, we hesitate to question its meaning for fear that doing so will open the door to even greater demands for self-policing and censorship in the classroom than those we already face. Yet the modern concept of freedom on which our claims to freedom are based has its own problems, even contradictions, all of which can be exploited by those who have little or no concern for freedom of expression. Rethinking freedom can help us address these problems in ways that enrich and strengthen the power of the term.

A Special Case

The inherent contradictions of freedom are particularly acute when it comes to one of the hottest of the hot-button issues now invoked in debates over academic freedom: that of religion. Religious freedom and academic freedom pose an apparent contradiction. The historical development of the concept of academic freedom is one in which free inquiry has often been defined in opposition to religious authority or dogma. If in defending academic freedom, we simply hold on to one side of this opposition, we will have no language for the ways in which academic and religious freedom might be mutually maintained. We leave ourselves open to charges of bias and the abrogation of religious freedom. If, however, we develop a means of talking about religious freedom in relation to academic freedom, we take a major step toward shifting a debate that is currently structured so that one form of freedom can be perpetually posed against another.

Because the relationship between freedom and religion is so fraught. …