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Who Defines Academic Freedom?
Let’s agree that all colleges and universities are biased and that their “world views” influence the way graduates see the world.

Should college and university students be free to think, say and do whatever they want? Within legal limits, of course.

The need for more public discussion on these issues is evident...

The first response of many Canadians is a quick “yes.” But in some ways, it’s not that simple. Should a professor at an evangelical university be free to publicly argue that Jesus was just a man and not God?

Should a Christian prof at a secular university be free to argue that non-Christian religions are fabrications unsupported by historical evidence, even when large parts of the student body are devout Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims?

Should a student at a Christian school be free to argue for and live out a lifestyle that demonstrates contempt for all limits on sexual liberty? How do schools deal with such issues, often labelled as issues of academic freedom? And more to the point, how does a Christian school remain Christian while doing so?

What kind of freedom?

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) defines academic freedom in a 2005 document as “the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination.”

It’s pretty obvious that “freedom from orthodoxy” is not what Christian schools are after. Yet in 2009 CAUT challenged several of them over their “faith test,” the common practice of asking employees whether they personally hold to the core Christian beliefs and lifestyle expectations that characterize the school’s faith community.

This showdown would not be necessary if everyone were to agree to a slightly wider definition of academic freedom. Consider for example the perspective of the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (AUCC): It is essential that universities have the freedom to set their research and educational priorities.

How the members of universities will teach and impart skills, conduct research and the pursuit of knowledge, and engage in fundamental criticism is best determined within the universities themselves. It is here that academic freedom, in its collective form of institutional autonomy, can ensure freedom of inquiry for individual faculty members and students.

In October, 2010 these issues of academic freedom were discussed by the board of Christian Higher Education Canada (CHEC), an association of 33 evangelical colleges, seminaries and universities. Not surprisingly, the board expressed its preference for the AUCC perspective. Jonathan Raymond, president of Trinity Western University, observed, “CAUT is simply out of step with higher education in North America.”

When CAUT representatives visited Canadian Mennonite University in November 2009 in Winnipeg, an amicable two-hour conversation led university president Gerald Gerbrandt to urge CAUT to sponsor a conference on the place of faith-based universities in a pluralist liberal democracy.

Since then Trinity Western, which is based in Langley, B.C., has offered to sponsor an academic conference that would open more public dialogue on these issues – and it has invited CAUT to participate. The proposed conference would focus on best practices in Canadian higher education generally, including a discussion focused particularly on academic freedom at faith-based universities.

The June 1, 2010 CHEC Annual General Meeting included a plenary discussion of these development. The following day the CHEC board initiated a press release which notes with concern the accusation by CAUT against some of its member institutions suggesting they do not practice bone fide academic freedom. The concern raised by CHEC is based on the seemingly arbitrary attitude of CAUT that it alone has authority to define the meaning of “university” and “academic freedom” within Canada and that those who do not accept its definitions are in some manner deficient.

Whereas academic freedom itself implies a basic respect for diversity of views and willingness to debate different positions without threat of reprisal, the Board of CHEC encourages the holding of a national conference to dialogue on the meaning of “university” and “academic freedom” within the Canadian context, and in relation to global understandings of these terms. It recommends that such a conference include all stakeholders within higher education. The Board would be pleased to arrange representative voices to make presentation on behalf of the confessional position of its members in an effort to create a climate of dialogue.

Bias a problem?

The need for more public discussion on these issues is evident in a 2007 Ipsos Reid national study of 7,800 people. It showed that most Canadians assume Christian higher education is biased. Fair enough, in one sense. Canadians should expect that an avowedly Christian institution with a mission, a statement of faith and a code of conduct would respect such stated convictions (even if CAUT seems to think it shouldn’t). But what about bias at secular Canadian universities? Yes, there are evangelical Christian faculty who work at such schools. But they generally find themselves vastly outnumbered by faculty who hold to secular convictions such as these:

• Democracy requires that faith convictions embracing a supreme being, divine revelation, an afterlife, divine moral norms and supernatural events must be excluded from the public square.

• Whatever happens must be accounted for by natural causes only, as science/reason requires.

• Freedom means support for the politically correct agenda, including a woman’s right to choose abortion and various kinds of same-sex activism.

Such convictions have dominated public education at all levels for at least a generation. In such an environment, it should be no surprise to find some academic leaders inclined to dismiss Christian scholarship – and perhaps to question the very legitimacy of Christian colleges and universities. But, thankfully, there are academic leaders who have a better understanding of these issues.

John Stackhouse of Regent College has taught at secular and religious institutions. In a January 11, 2010 University Affairs article, he points out that faculty at Christian schools are not alone in experiencing pressures toward conformity – pressures that threaten academic freedom.

At secular universities, Stackhouse says, teachers feel pressured “to conform to the preferences of one’s departmental superiors who will be deciding on one’s tenure and promotion, to the fads of one’s discipline and to the priorities of granting agencies.”

Stackhouse calls on the wider academic community to consider that “there is something very good about an institution that fosters a community of scholarship in which a range of basic ideas can be taken for granted as incontestable and then other ideas can be explored together on that basis.” In his University Affairs article he adds: “What CAUT cannot expect, however, is for confessional universities to act exactly like secular universities.”

Limitations everywhere?

The issue is a crucial one for the future of our country because colleges and universities influence the belief systems of their graduates. One study suggests that more than half the students who called themselves “born-again” Christians going into public colleges and universities rejected the term by graduation and had not attended church for over a year.

At Christian institutions, this apparent loss of faith only affected one to three percent. (The study by Steve Hendersen looked at 16,000 students in 133 schools.) Many proponents of the CAUT definition of academic freedom may see these numbers as good, as a sign that public schools are helping students move beyond irrational religious beliefs. But Christian philosophers argue that this change among students is not due to a relaxation of restrictions, but rather a replacement of one world view by another. Basically it comes down to the idea that students have a choice between higher education with a Christian bias or with a secular bias.

Let’s all agree that it’s impossible to have higher education free of bias, both in principle and in practice. Agreement on this point would allow all Canadians, religious or not, to affirm the 17,000 Canadians each year who freely prefer to sharpen their minds with those who confess Jesus as Lord, though they may freely disagree on other matters.

For further discussion, see www.faithtoday.ca/academicfreedom.

Al Hiebert, PhD, was the first executive director of Christian Higher Education Canada, an association of 33 colleges, universities and seminaries affiliated with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2010.

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