February 24, 2011
Faith statements impinge on academic freedom? (Part 4 of 4)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, February 24, 2011)
Faith statements impinge on academic freedom? (Part 4 of 4)
Over the past few years, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has been investigating and blacklisting several Christian universities because, CAUT alleges, these schools violate academic freedom. According to CAUT, culprit schools “have imposed [on faculty] a requirement of a commitment to a particular ideology or statement [of faith] as condition of employment,” and so such schools “cannot be practicing academic freedom.” Thus, or so CAUT would have us believe, the blacklisted Christian schools lack academic legitimacy and credibility.
Happily, last week CAUT announced that it will cease its lengthy formal investigations (which, as critics have correctly pointed out, could have been conducted in minutes simply by checking each school's website).
Unhappily, however, CAUT still plans to maintain a list of schools that require their faculty to sign a faith statement. (I say "unhappily" because CAUT's project continues to cast public suspicion on listed schools wholly in the absence of empirical evidence that the academic freedom of faculty or students in these schools has been actually impaired.)
In three previous Apologia columns (April 22, April 29, May 6, 2010), I set out three reasons for thinking that CAUT's blacklisting project is problematic. Today, I will add a fourth reason.
First, let's review my previous reasons.
Reason 1. Via its blacklisting project CAUT is thwarting academic freedom broadly conceived. That is, CAUT is denying the fact that academic freedom is enhanced if we allow sub-groups of the broader scholarly community to accept the philosophical-theological light that they believe they have discovered, allow them to band together, and allow them to use the aforementioned light as a lamp unto their collective feet. Sure, these sub-groups might be mistaken; but they might not be mistaken. Either way, there is an increase in the freedom of the broader academic community to pursue knowledge and truth—which is good.
Reason 2. CAUT is unfairly imposing its preferred philosophical-theological views onto the broader academic community. Via its blacklisting project, CAUT is assuming that no scholarly sub-community can appropriately settle on and commit to some philosophical-theological truths unless the larger academic culture approves. But this means that CAUT is granting itself a privileged philosophical-theological status (e.g., agnosticism or atheism) over and above that of the schools on the blacklist (i.e., Christian theism), and this allows CAUT—as a self-appointed theological-philosophical authority—to judge the blacklisted schools to be academically inferior. Because this philosophical-theological posturing is done without argument or debate, CAUT is engaged in academic bullying.
Reason 3. In an important sense it is false that a Christian school's requirement for faculty to subscribe to a statement of faith means that such schools "cannot be practicing academic freedom." In my personal experience teaching at a Christian university college, faculty and students have the freedom to investigate—and are in fact encouraged to investigate—the faith doctrines of their particular school. Thus, faculty and students have the freedom to seek truth even under the auspices of a faith statement.
So far, so good.
Recently, I have learned of yet another good reason for thinking that CAUT's blacklisting project is problematic.
Reason 4. CAUT's major concern—that a school's requirement of faculty to adhere to a particular ideology or faith statement as a condition of employment may impinge on the outcome of an academic investigation and thereby impinge on academic freedom—is a concern for all schools, not just Christian schools.
To support reason 4, I will quote (with permission) from an email sent to me by my friend and colleague, Dr. Kevin Flatt, assistant professor of history at Redeemer University College. (Aside: When Kevin was a teenager, he was a student in one of my Sunday school classes—yes, the pupil quickly becomes the master!)
According to Dr. Flatt, "all scholarship, whether Christian or not,…involves parameters that limit academic freedom."
Dr. Flatt defends this claim with two excellent insights (so I quote in extenso here):
(1) Even secular universities impose limits on academic freedom on the basis of some (albeit minimal) shared perspective. For example, no Canadian university would allow a scholar to outright deny the historical truth of the Holocaust, or to argue that women are not full human beings, or to publish papers suggesting that professors should murder their students. Why? Because such "freedom" would strike at the very basis and mission of those universities. In this way, even secular universities constrain academic freedom on the basis of a shared starting point, even if the content of that starting point differs from, and is less specific than, that of Christian universities.
(2) But even if this were not so, on an individual level, every scholar works with what [Yale philosopher] Nick Wolterstorff calls "control beliefs" (Reason within the Bounds of Religion, chap. 9) that act as self-imposed limits on what theories that scholar will even consider. For example, someone who holds the non-existence of God as a control belief will always rule out a theory that involves miraculous divine intervention in the course of events, no matter how strong the evidence in its favour (I'm preaching to the converted here, I know). Admittedly, control beliefs can be revised over time, but at any given moment, every scholar must operate within their parameters. Even if the faculty at a secular university (unlike at a Christian one) have not joined together on the basis of shared control beliefs, the individuals concerned are still operating with those beliefs. And in any case, as I argue under (1), I think the secular academy does have some shared control beliefs, whether it wants to admit it or not.
Thus, the Canadian Association of University Teachers now has four good reasons to completely halt its blacklisting project—or, as Reason 4 suggests, at least include the rest of Canada's universities on its list.
P.S. Here is a list of faculty at Canadian universities and colleges who reject CAUT's investigations concerning academic freedom at faith-mandated postsecondary institutions: Faculty Statement on CAUT.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)