Academic Freedom and Religion

By Snyder, Martin D. | Academe, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom and Religion


Snyder, Martin D., Academe


Academic conferences can be wearying. There are inevitably too many talking heads, too little time for conversation and reflection, and too many somnifacient meals and snacks. Nevertheless, when intelligent people of good will convene to grapple with difficult issues, the experience can be immensely rewarding. The Association's third conference on academic freedom at religiously affiliated colleges and universities proved no exception.

Faculty members and administrators from around the country came together in March on the beautiful campus of the University of San Diego to discuss some very thorny issues: the legitimacy of doctrinal limits on academic freedom, the preservation of the identity and mission of faith-based higher education, institutional autonomy and faculty governance, and the perennial hot topics of sex and science. If definitive solutions were hard to come by, at least the participants' understanding of the intellectual complexity and emotional depth of the issues was expanded.

For the Association, the key issue of the conference was the limitation of academic freedom. The AAUP's position was made unequivocally clear. Any limitation to academic freedom must be clearly stated at the time of appointment, and the statement of limitation does not absolve an institution from the requirements of due process. Few participants in the conference took exception to the policy, although many voiced objections to the Association's rhetoric, finding it condescending and dismissive.

The religiously affiliated institutions continue to wrestle with the issue of their individual and collective identities. They are keenly aware of the trend toward secularization that has characterized the history of many religiously founded colleges and universities in this country. They aspire to educational excellence and they recognize their need to prepare an often diverse body of students for life in a secular society, yet they desire to retain their core values while avoiding parochialness.

Many of the religious institutions represented at the conference maintain strong spiritual, monetary, and administrative ties to their founding churches. Achieving a proper balance between church authority and institutional autonomy remains an evolving and continually nuanced process. How decisions are made and by whom are often complicated questions. In particular, how the faculty carries out its responsibilities in its appropriate spheres of governance (curriculum, subject matter, methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life that relate to the educational process) can be jeopardized or compromised by the existence of an authority structure external to the college or university. …

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