STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 05/30/2012

Fear Not: Security, Risk and Academic Freedom

Recently, my colleagues and I were hosting one of our annual dessert parties for new students. After a bowl of ice cream and some cookies and coffee, we enjoyed a few minutes of discussion. To my surprise, one student asked: "Now that I have chosen Gordon, why is this the right choice?"

While one of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department waxed eloquent in response, I half listened while wondering how I should answer such a question. When my colleague finished, I simply added, "You made the right choice to come to Gordon, because we can tell the whole truth." I went on to explain that most secular institutions of higher learning deny, ignore, or are indifferent to any truth claims grounded in religious faith, biblical texts, and church tradition, and some insist that holding to religious truths precludes the exercise of academic freedom. I went on to qualify my claim for Christian higher education by confessing that while Christian professors in a Christian college can tell the whole truth, we often do not for fear, individually or institutionally, that we will offend or anger some constituents: the administration, the board, our students, their parents, or some of our colleagues.

We would like to think that faculty signing a faith statement, along with a robust chapel program and a solid biblical/theological core for all students, would distinguish us as a Christian institution of higher learning. However, without an authentic commitment to academic freedom within a framework of Christian faith, Christian colleges and universities easily become either sanctified versions of secular institutions or oppressive and contentious organizations that drive honest questions and discussion underground and produce a scheming and polarized faculty and administration. Speaking the truth in love is the only way I know to live in the tension that we call freedom. If we believe that truth set us free and that perfect love casts out fear, then we need to have the courage to encourage one another, individually and institutionally, to risk living, studying, teaching, and writing as truthfully and lovingly as we know how. It is risky. That is the nature of freedom, whether political or academic. If our ultimate goal is to secure our jobs or to secure our institution financially, academic freedom is not possible.

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free," declared St. Paul (Gal. 5:1). But freedom (including academic freedom) is not freedom without risk.

Christian colleges and universities must be transparent with their faculty and other constituents about how free individual faculty members are to interpret faith statements and institutional mission. The guiding principle here is freedom based on love: of Christ, of Scripture, of our institutional traditions, and, of course, of one another. But such freedom is not boundless. Even the AAUP recognizes that academic freedom is about teaching the truth as we see it in our disciplines. This does not include all of our personal opinions and hobby horses being foisted upon our students and colleagues, especially if these opinions are expressed in disrespectful and intimidating ways.

Therefore, Christian institutions that require their faculty to sign faith statements and to subscribe to codes of behavior that serve the missions of their institutions must make clear those core values from the beginning and keep the dialogue open with faculty as they move through their respective careers. This should include a mutual responsibility between faculty and administration to encourage each other to uphold those values but to understand that words are said and that decisions are made that could cause us to doubt one another. When this happens, the offended party should seek understanding and reconciliation in the spirit of grace, acknowledging that we do not always know what we think we know and that each of us struggles and falters in our respective journeys. We also need to have the personal integrity to walk away with grace from an institution with which we have come to disagree.

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free," declared St. Paul (Gal. 5:1). But freedom (including academic freedom) is not freedom without risk, whether for faculty members who must be willing to risk their secure positions, for administrators who must be willing to risk their institution’s reputation and their own positions, or students who must be willing to risk searching for the truth that sets us free. If we will not risk, we are not free.

Dan Russ serves as the academic dean of Gordon College. This is an excerpt from "Fear Not: Security, Risk, and Academic Freedom," in The Christian College Phenomenon: Inside America’s Fastest Growing Institutions of Higher Learning, edited by Samuel Joeckel and Thomas Chesnes (Abilene Christian University Press, 2011).

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