Academic freedom is a hallmark of higher education. Everything from tenure to the American Association of University Professors to the higher education accrediting system is ostensibly designed to protect this right. One of the surest ways to run afoul of the accrediting bodies that wield significant and largely unchecked power is for a university to summarily fire a professor deemed politically suspect. The ongoing controversy surrounding the University of Illinois, which revoked a contract offer to Steven Salaita because of incendiary tweets he made about Israel, is a case in point. In support of Dr. Salaita, thousands of academics have promised to boycott speaking engagements and other academic collaborations with the university.
Given an environment in which academic freedom is valued above all, it should come as little surprise that some academics have taken issue with the supposedly illiberal practice of professors taking an oath of faith at some religious universities. While these authors claim to recognize that such universities and their professors have the right to do as they see fit, they question the logic of accrediting such religious institutions that, in their opinion, squelch academic freedom.
This is a bit disingenuous of these authors, because denying accreditation to a university has such severe financial consequences that it can be tantamount to shutting it down. Pell grants and Stafford loans, key federal funds that subsidize nearly all of higher education, can only be used by students who attend accredited institutions. If these funds are denied to its students, a school is likely to find itself in dire financial straits.
Unfortunately, the use of accreditation status as a political threat against religiously-based institutions is not merely a theoretical possibility; it is already happening. Gordon College, a Christian school located near Boston, was placed under review by its regional accrediting agency when its president signed a letter supporting a religious exemption to the Obama administration’s executive order banning discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
While the issue in the case of Gordon College deals with its code of conduct, at its root it is an academic freedom issue. Should faith-based colleges have the freedom to establish an educational environment that is consistent with the tenets of their faith?
Faith, Reason, and Academic Freedom
What is often lost amidst discussions of academic freedom is the fact that academic freedom is a means, not an end. The primary end of a university’s existence is not to maintain academic freedom. It is not some high-priced version of a town hall meeting, where every drunk lunatic gets a chance to sound off. No one would argue in the name of academic freedom that a university should retain a faculty member whose main “scholarly” work is to argue that Asians are racially inferior to Africans, or that women are unfit for work outside the home. Even in the modern academy, academic freedom has limits.
Rather, the purpose of a university is to pursue knowledge and truth. Academic freedom is subservient to these pursuits. While it is unlikely that many in academe subscribe to the belief that there is an absolute truth, all academics believe that they are pursuing at least a relative version of the truth. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find an academic who believed he is not furthering our knowledge in some respect by his work.
Academic freedom is meant to facilitate such knowledge and truth-seeking, just as collegiality, honest peer review, and an unbiased tenure process are meant to do. Academic freedom is a means to an end: the pursuit of knowledge and truth.
At religious institutes of higher learning, this pursuit of the truth represents a dynamic balance between faith and reason. In this context, faith illuminates rather than obscures reason. An active faith compels one to embark on a rational search for truth and knowledge. This is made evident by the long tradition of Christian intellectuals from Thomas Aquinas, who laid out a rational case for the faith in his Summa Theologiae, to Georges Lemaitre, a Jesuit priest, who was the first to propose the Big Bang theory. Although apparent conflicts may occasionally arise between faith and reason, there are just as many conflicts that arise between atheism and reason. A sincere faith is no more a dogmatic blinder than a sincerely held atheism.
Yet, the academic community is becoming increasingly hostile to intellectual perspectives that are informed by faith. If one doesn’t believe this, try building an academic career in which you argue that gay parenting may not be an optimal arrangement, that embryo-destructive stem cell research is ethically problematic, that science cannot explain all of human behavior, or that the world is intelligible because it is the product of an intelligent Creator. These are perfectly reasonable views that are supported by a variety of rational arguments. However, arguing for them would require a dangerous run against the academic herd.
This is not to say that these viewpoints are necessarily correct, but they are certainly worthy of rigorous intellectual debate. Unfortunately, they seldom see the light of day at most universities. When they do surface, it is often at the behest of independent student organizations rather than the faculty. The reality is that many Christian universities thrive precisely because of this lack of academic freedom at public universities.
Public Policy Principles
In a pluralistic society, one would expect there to be many different perspectives on what knowledge is worth pursuing. Should we have academic classes that display live sexual acts? Should we have classes like “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” or “Cyberporn and Society” on the books at publicly funded colleges? Not everyone who pays taxes would believe these courses to be a wise use of federal funds, but some Universities—not to mention many twenty-year-old college males perusing the course catalog—would disagree.
Is the fact that such courses would never be offered at many religious universities an affront to academic freedom? Hardly. True academic freedom values diversity of thought, not conformity, particularly when higher education is being publicly funded by the members of a pluralistic society. Why should religious citizens be required to contribute tax money to support college education if it only comes in one politically correct flavor—a flavor that tends to marginalize their religious beliefs?
If secularists, atheists, religious believers, and everyone in between are required to contribute tax dollars to fund higher education grants and loans, individual students should have the freedom to spend the dollars at the accredited institution of their choosing. As long as the institution is adequately preparing these students, teaching pre-med students organic chemistry, teaching philosophy students Kierkegaard and Aristotle, and teaching business students economics, the accreditation bodies should give religious universities broad latitude to pursue their mission. If the accreditation process becomes reduced to jumping through a set of predetermined politically correct hoops, then the pursuit of truth will suffer, and diversity in academe will slowly wither and die.
On the other hand, our current situation, which does not yet financially discriminate against religiously-based universities, is imbued with a robust level of academic freedom. Students and parents can freely choose academic environments in which the pursuit of truth, as revealed by the person of Christ and confirmed by reason, is paramount. If they feel stifled by this or come to the conclusion that reason no longer supports the truths of Christianity, students are free to enroll elsewhere and take their federal monies with them.
By contrast, taking people’s hard-earned money through taxation and then allowing a gaggle of unaccountable academics to decide at which politically correct universities they are able to spend it is the best way to squash academic freedom in our country. More importantly, it’s the best way to squash the unfettered pursuit of the truth.