Faith Statements Do Restrict Academic Freedom

By Wagner, Kenneth | Academe, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview

Faith Statements Do Restrict Academic Freedom

Wagner, Kenneth, Academe

Most defenses of evangelical colleges miss the point-rigid orthodoxy does not go well with the quest for knowledge.

Christian colleges have been with us since Harvard and Princeton universities were founded several centuries ago for religious reasons. Recently, such institutions have achieved phenomenal, though quiet, growth. Writing in the June 22, 2005, issue of USA Today, Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of God on the Quad, points to a 67 percent jump in enrollment at evangelical colleges from 1992 to 2002. Noting that they do not fit the caricature imagined by many secularists, Riley extols their students' strong moral beliefs and argues that they have become more tolerant and willing to accept modern science than in the past. To be sure, religious colleges exist on a continuum, from the barely affiliated to the ultraorthodox. Still, Riley overlooks a troubling constraint that many of these schools impose on their faculty: the requirement that faculty members subscribe to statements of religious faith as a condition of employment.

Statements of faith differ from institution to institution but often ask faculty members to profess to believe in the literal truth of the Bible. These statements have teeth; violation of them through pedagogy, research, or activism can be grounds for punitive action, including termination, at some institutions. Several high-profile cases of such dismissals have brought attention to statements of faith and stirred some debate as to their propriety. (see, for example, "Do Professors Lose Academic Freedom by Signing Statements of Faith?" in the May 24, 2002, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.) In 1999, the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure published a report titled The "Limitations" Clause in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure: Some Operating Guidelines, which recommends ways to apply the Association's "limitations" clause to religious institutions.1 The guidelines do not, however, address whether such statements are appropriate at all.

Supporters of restrictions on academic freedom in religious colleges make four arguments as to their appropriateness: that such institutions reflect the pluralism of our nation and contribute to civil society; that complete academic freedom is an impossible and indeed unwanted goal; that religious institutions with their restrictions play a special and better role in producing morally good citizens; and that such restrictions are not restrictions at all since faculty and students choose them voluntarily.

Proponents of dogmatic religious colleges assert that they reflect the beauty and grandeur of American pluralism. In the January-February 2001 issue of Academe, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff claims that religious colleges are a "prime manifestation of the extraordinary vitality of American civil society." According to this thinking, such pluralism is not simply a necessary corollary of freedom of speech and association at a college or university but is instead a crucial part of the fabric of American society.

It sounds like common sense to say that it is good for civil society to have many different institutions operate independently of standardized governmental purview. French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville made this observation as long ago as the nineteenth century. But is it true? In fact, theorists of social capital are unsure whether religious institutions contribute to social capital-an important measure of the strength of civic association developed by Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. Several studies have documented that theologically conservative associations (those most likely to demand orthodoxy in their institutions of higher education) inhibit the building of social capital and the strengthening of civil society (see, for example, the article by Anne Birgitta Yeung in the September 2004 issue of the Nonprofit and Voluntary sector Quarterly). …

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