15 May 2006 - Monday

Trouble in Purcellville

At Cliopatria, KC Johnson has drawn my attention to the fact that five professors recently resigned from Patrick Henry College. The conservative Christian institution has drawn a lot of attention over the last few years; these faculty resignations reveal internal debate over academic freedom and the role of Scripture in intellectual life.

The story, as reported in Leesburg Today (23 March and 12 May) and in the Chronicle of Higher Education (12 May), is as follows.

In March, five PHC professors informed the school that they would not renew their contracts for the 2006-2007 year. They are Dr. M. Todd Bates, assistant professor of rhetoric; Dr. J. Kevin Culberson, assistant professor of history and literature; Dr. David Noe, assistant professor of classics; Prof. Erik Root, instructor of government; and Dr. Robert Stacey, chairman of the department of government.

Four of these teachers are finishing out the academic year. Robert Stacey, however, was subsequently fired after he discussed the dispute in class and suggested that students who found his teaching insufficiently Christian should leave the course. According to president Michael Farris, he was dismissed for "forcing students to leave the classroom if they disagreed with him."

The professors' specific grievances are described in the Chronicle article. Last fall, it seems, Farris mandated changes to the text of a campuswide lecture that Todd Bates was preparing. After that controversy, several professors agreed privately to support each other in the event of further administrative interference.

This spring, the father of a PHC student contacted Farris to complain about Erik Root's teaching. When discussing the "state of nature" in the thought of Locke and Hobbes, Root had posed some hypothetical moral dilemmas and asked students to describe how these thinkers would respond. When one student quoted a Bible verse, Root says he asked her to elaborate: "That's great, but it's too simplistic. Can we flesh that out?" The woman's father objected, as did Farris, to the idea that a Bible verse could be "simplistic." Root says he wasn't criticizing the Bible verse itself; he just wanted the student to expand on it. Farris threatened not to renew Root's contract.

The other four professors, apparently, agreed to resign along with Root. Two of them also published an opinion piece in PHC's student publication, SOURCE Magazine, related to the larger question evoked in the controversy.

Entitled "The Role of General Revelation in Education," this article (8 March) criticized "a common misperception among American evangelicals" -- "that the Bible is the only source of truth." According to the article,

Christians may be inclined to accept this proposition when it comes to things like carpentry and the law. After all the Bible does not tell us how to fix a door jamb or file a brief in appellate court. They are less inclined or sometimes refuse to accept this when it comes to matters of ethics and the nature of the soul. But while it is true that the Bible contains all we need to know for reconciliation with God, it does not include all the information we need to lead happy and productive lives. That is not what the sufficiency of Scripture means. The majority of the knowledge we need comes to us from God's grace revealed in nature, and the bulk of that through the efforts of irreligious and ungodly men.
The day after Culberson and Noe's editorial was published, the five professors submitted notice of their resignation. The article prompted a long critical email (subscriber-only PDF) from the college chaplain, sent with the president's imprimatur to the entire school.

According to Leesburg Today, student and faculty grievances include the following:

  • "Farris and the administration did not anticipate the amount of disagreement that would occur in this community they set up." There is an "unreasonable expectation of conformity." -- senior Carol Browning
  • "They will characterize those that disagree as bad people. They will say 'You are destroying our unity.'" -- junior Tim Hoskins
  • "I've been told there are things I cannot teach. There are things I cannot ask." "We don't know from day to day, what is going to be accepted or what is not going to be accepted." -- Root
  • "Students are afraid to raise questions or criticize the school." -- Noe
  • "I didn't come here to go to Bible school. I came here for a liberal arts education from a Christian perspective. I feel like I've been cheated." -- sophomore Farahn Morgan
  • Comment from Farris:
  • "I believe that first of all, that Marx, Nietzsche, Calvin, Augustin, Thomas Paine and a great number of others deserved to be studied because they are important. They shaped cultures and nations. (Students) need to know what they say because they are important. The ultimate standard is God's word. It's not a matter of no truth in these things."
  • "I don't want a school where everybody agrees about everything. We've tried to agree with some basics on a great variety of opinions on a variety of issues and that's healthy. Remember, we have not asked anybody to leave over philosophical differences."
  • ----------

    I'm not sure what anyone will make of my reaction to the controversy, but here goes.

    Observers are already condemning Patrick Henry College, of course. The story of these resignations is an aha! moment for those suspicious of the school's mission. Here we have evidence that PHC really is as intellectually confining as everybody had reason to suspect; nearly a third of its faculty are leaving to protest its lack of academic freedom.

    However, I have a much more personal interest in the controversy. I recently graduated from another conservative evangelical college, so this story fascinates me. Questions of academic freedom did come up at LeTourneau University -- sometimes I was the one to bring them up -- and I think the similarities and differences in the two schools are instructive.

    First, I feel safe saying that LeTourneau (LETU) is a much more diverse and free school than PHC. Although LETU requires its professors to sign a statement of faith, it does not require its students to do so, unlike PHC. Furthermore, LETU lacks the explicit political emphasis that PHC has, and it seems to allow more flexibility on most controversial issues. The school does affirm that academic freedom is an inherent academic good, although it sometimes seems to struggle to reconcile that idea with its conservative evangelical mission. The fact that LETU's main teaching strengths are in engineering, computer science, and business may help; there's a certain pragmatism in the campus mentality.

    However, I also know of at least one faculty member who left LETU abruptly after an academic-freedom dispute with the administration. The matter was rather mysterious; I'm sure most students never learned the reason for the departure. As I understand it, leaving was not optional. I found, however, that very few professors were willing to discuss such controversies at all. When I wrote an article on academic freedom for the school newspaper, my interviews were pretty thin. Like PHC, LeTourneau does not have real tenure. I didn't press very hard for information; I like my professors too much.

    It would be easy to condemn such a university. How can real liberal-arts learning take place in the absence of real academic freedom? (PHC's policy on the subject is a marvel of equivocation; LETU's is better but still cagey.) But I think the practical outcomes I have seen at LETU suggest that dogmatic religious universities can have real value as agents of free inquiry.

    I've seen many LETU students learn to think critically who otherwise might have retreated into intellectual isolation and partisanship. Because these students were able to watch professors model both orthodox faith and genuine scholarship, they learned not to view the asking of questions as a threat. In other contexts, by contrast, I have seen similar young evangelicals become far more hostile to unfamiliar beliefs. (I think the perception that many secular institutions also have a strong ideological skewing probably contributes to that unfortunate tendency in evangelical students; naturally enough, they tend to get defensive.)

    In other words, I think LETU tends to help sheltered students overcome their binary conception of the world. There is a genuine diversity of opinion within the LeTourneau community on many questions; this actually helps some (not all, to be sure) students overcome their prejudices better than a secular institution might. As much as I value freedom of inquiry -- indeed, my view on freedom of thought, expression, and association is utterly libertarian -- I cannot deny the pragmatic value of a "safer" place in which evangelicals can explore the world's questions. At the end of the day, many LETU students do develop a much different view of the world from the one held by their university's administration and donors.

    I'm not sure the same could be said of PHC. Its political mission and more exacting doctrinal standards probably mean that students are not going to be exposed to the same range of perspectives, and they are probably encouraged to put activism ahead of education. On the other hand, it would be hard to deny that some learning is going on there; PHC has, for example, defeated Oxford University in moot court exhibition competition.* In many respects, no doubt, PHC offers a much more rigorous liberal-arts curriculum than LETU does. It would be unwise to patronize PHC, however much one disagrees with its perspective.

    | Posted by Wilson at 17:46 Central | TrackBack
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