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Theologies of Academic Freedom
Lake Lambert

A common narrative about higher education in the United States juxtaposes academic freedom and sectarian religious identity. As the story is often told, academic freedom increases when religious identity diminishes, and vice-versa. Indeed, the same story is told by those who advocate for greater academic freedom and by those who advocate for enhanced religious identity. In The Soul of the American University (1994), George Marsden bemoaned the fact that many church-related colleges and universities carelessly abandoned distinctive denominational identities for a non-sectarian vision that valued a particular version of academic freedom and cultural progress.

Much happened at the dawn of the twentieth century to establish this narrative. As controversies raged over historical critical methods of biblical study and biological evolution, John Dewey and the organization he helped establish—the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—asserted that strong religious or denominational identity and academic freedom were antithetical. Denominational identity, claimed the AAUP, set the religious authority of the church over against the scientific authority of the professor. Moreover, the sophisticated level of expertise inherent in scientifically-grounded professorial authority required that any evaluation of the teaching and publications of professors be made exclusively by peers rather than by denominational officials. The canonical form of the narrative was eventually established in the AAUP’s multiple policy documents and the “Red Book” that collects them.

The trouble with a canon, as with all orthodoxies, is how it marginalizes alternatives. In “The Freedom of Teaching” (1883), the American philosopher Josiah Royce offered a different philosophical foundation for academic freedom, arguing that the freedom of the educator was necessary due to the “disputed problems” higher education addressed. While Dewey found the basis of academic freedom in the expertise and authority of the educator, Royce found it in the necessity of doubt and continuous investigation in the task of learning. According to Royce, all college- or university-level teaching engages “disputed questions of principle, of method, of scope, and of result,” and as a consequence, the professor “must himself be, as far as in him lies, an investigator” who encourages students to be investigators themselves (237). The necessary condition to make this possible is academic freedom. As Royce states it, “The very air of investigation is freedom” (238).

Royce was no friend of doctrinaire denominational colleges that made the professor into a “mouthpiece” for someone else’s ideas. However, Royce, by grounding academic freedom in questions and doubt as opposed to independent expertise, was much more in line with educational methods previously embraced by Western Christianity. For example, Thomas Aquinas asserted that doubt was necessary in the pursuit of truth, and he structured the Summa in the scholastic method of disputed questions that required readers to engage in alternative arguments before truth could be discovered. Likewise, the Protestant reformers embraced humanism’s search for truth by questioning established doctrine and returning to original sources. The problem, as George Marsden argued, was that American higher education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced a liberal Protestantism that endorsed tolerance and non-sectarianism as theological virtues but did not provide a bulwark against arguments like Dewey’s that valued expertise while marginalizing faith.

Many serious theologians and denominational loyalists do not see the choices so starkly as academic freedom versus religious orthodoxy. Protestant and Catholic academics can begin with different premises but end up in the same place as equally forceful advocates for academic freedom precisely in colleges and universities that take their denominational identities seriously. These faculty and administrators have crafted theological arguments that defend academic freedom against denominational leaders outside the university while answering secular critics for whom academic freedom is necessary for respectability. In his book Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship (2000), Anthony Diekema, former president of Calvin College, contends that the arguments for academic freedom are too often based on an epistemology of “objectivity and pure rationality” that has been largely rejected by the academy itself. Instead, all arguments for academic freedom are grounded in some type of worldview, and worldviews may differ by institutional mission. Some may continue to find their basis in objectivity and expertise, but there is not and should not be a single universal grounding for academic freedom.

At my own Mercer University, twenty-five years ago academic freedom was tested by charges put forward by a Baptist layman in a letter sent to “all Georgia Baptists.” Among the many charges made by Mr. Lee Roberts of Atlanta were that the teachings and writings of Mercer’s president, Dr. Kirby Godsey, were heretical and that Mercer University Press published works contrary to the teaching of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Although the charge of heresy was directed at him personally as much as it was at the university as a whole, it fell to Godsey to defend both, and he did so with arguments that were distinctively Baptist. Writing in the student newspaper soon after Roberts’s letter became public, Godsey sought to define Mercer’s identity as a Baptist university with an uncompromising support for academic freedom. Godsey also made specific connections to Baptist theology and especially to the tradition’s long commitment to religious freedom. While he never explicitly used the phrase, Godsey repeatedly alluded to what Baptists recognize as “soul competency” or “soul freedom,” the theological idea that “each person’s journey of faith must be tenaciously respected.” Theologically, the concept of soul competency is the Baptist basis for expecting personal conversion and limiting baptism exclusively to individuals who confess belief. It values the individual and freedom of thought, insisting that ideas be engaged without threats of coercion and only by the power of the Holy Spirit on the human soul. According to Godsey, this was the foundation for Mercer’s theology of academic freedom as well.

At the University of Notre Dame, issues of academic freedom emerged in 2006 at the beginning of Father John Jenkins’s presidency. The impetus was three planned events on campus: a Queer Film Festival, a performance of The Vagina Monologues, and a series of presentations and papers by female students on abortion, contraception, and other issues in human sexuality that were united under the title of “Her Loyal Daughters.” Over several months, Father Jenkins and the university as a whole articulated a pragmatic yet theological understanding of academic freedom in the Catholic context. Academic freedom, said Jenkins in an address to the faculty on January 23, 2006, is a “sacred value” but one with boundaries nonetheless. He explained that his concerns over the three events were “not with censorship but with sponsorship.” The issue at hand was not the academic freedom of the faculty or even of individual students but instead the appropriateness of academic units and university organizations sponsoring certain kinds of events. In perfect conformity to AAUP documents, Jenkins clearly defended the academic freedom of ­faculty to teach and conduct research subject only to peer review as well as their freedom in extramural utterances. While Jenkins noted that Notre Dame should be open to speakers or events that conflict with Catholic values, he cautioned that sponsorship of such events by units of the university might create the appearance that the university is endorsing those views rather than ensuring that a variety of views are engaged.

Four months after Jenkins identified this distinction between censorship and sponsorship, he and department chairs within the College of Arts and Sciences issued their “Common Proposal” for how potential issues should be resolved, specifically invoking the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” as their guide. The principle of subsidiarity has a long history in Catholic social thought; it claims that decisions should be made at the lowest level possible in societies and even in organizations. In this case, Father Jenkins and the chairs proposed that within the university “departments are best situated to decide what events should and should not be sponsored and to explain the nature of the sponsorship” and that “the President should rarely be involved in such day-to-day matters.” The statement repeatedly mentions the need for Catholic teachings and perspectives to be part of the ongoing dialogue at the university as well as the final authority of the president in all matters. Through its invocation of subsidiarity, Notre Dame was able to align itself with the AAUP standard of disciplinary experts being the primary decision-makers over what ideas should and should not be publicly presented at the university, while at the same time invoking a long-respected principle of Catholic teaching.

Unlike Mercer and Notre Dame, California Lutheran University (CLU) did not articulate its understanding of academic freedom in response to an issue or concern but took a more proactive approach through the work of a presidentially-appointed committee seeking to define the institution’s denominational identity. In a committee document with a title borrowed from the university’s motto—“Love of Christ, Truth and Freedom: The Lutheran Character of California Lutheran University”—the committee asserted that “Love of Truth” requires a vigorous defense of academic freedom as well as a commitment to promote both theological literacy and to provide occasions for an encounter with the Christian Gospel. After describing Martin Luther’s identity as a university professor, the statement adds that “neither Luther nor the tradition he inspired fear challenge, debate, or diversity of views. These simply magnify the complexity of the Creation and further glorify the Creator.” There is also remarkable consistency in the university’s documents relating to academic freedom, including a guide for new faculty and staff stating that “the university supports academic inquiry and a scholarly quest for truth in all disciplines, believing that scientific inquiry and insights of faith are complementary ways of pursuing the wholeness of truth.” Even the university’s faculty handbook begins with Lutheran theology before moving into a direct quotation from the 1940 AAUP statement on academic freedom and tenure.

Theologies of academic freedom tell us something about the identities of faith-based colleges and universities as they seek to uphold the values of both academy and the church. For the academy, institutional support for academic values creates legitimacy and aids faculty recruitment and retention, and for the church, institutional support for theological ideals also creates legitimacy and may aid ongoing church support in funding and enrollment. Attacks against academic freedom from inside denominational circles require responses from shared denominational sources of authority. Colleges and universities that seek to renew their denominational identities must provide a theological accounting for how a denomination’s theology is compatible with academic values like academic freedom. Finally, academic freedom can have diverse sources, theological as well as secular, allowing many faith-based institutions to preserve their identities while upholding one of the most important and widely shared scholarly values.

Church-related higher education would benefit from more theologies of academic freedom. These theologies would mine the depths of denominational traditions as well as the traditions within traditions that established and maintained colleges and universities for over a century. Hauge Lutherans may have something different to say than Loehe Lutherans or “happy Dane” Lutherans. Likewise, Holy Cross Catholics may have something ­different to say than Franciscans or Dominicans. Even Baptists at Mercer call themselves “Mercer Baptists” to distinguish themselves from others and to tie ourselves back to our namesake Jesse Mercer who was a passionate advocate for religious freedom and who even wrote the religious freedom clause of the Georgia Constitution. Most importantly, theologies of academic freedom will allow church-related colleges and universities to embrace this highest of academic values because of their denominational traditions rather than in spite of them, making the traditions alive and more meaningful to the academic vocations of teachers and students.

 

Lake Lambert is Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University.

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