Home » Christian Higher Education » Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges: Responding to the Conn Articles

Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges: Responding to the Conn Articles

Coens

This is not the Conns.

This week a pair of opinion pieces concerning Christian Higher Education burst onto my social media feeds. Since I had been on the road, the second one caught my eye first. Steven Conn, professor of history at Ohio State, wrote a piece in the Huffington Post titled “Is ‘Christian College’ an Oxymoron?“.  While trying to get my head around his very incomplete argument, I started seeing responses to a Conn article that had appeared in the Chronicle the beginning of the week. This one, titled “The Great Accreditation Farce“, was written by Peter Conn, professor of english and education at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m not sure how Steve and Peter are connected but I did find at least one piece that they co-wrote, so I’m assuming that they are brothers. (This is not a picture of them but every time I think of the idea of Conn brothers, these guys come to mind.)

I’ll try to summarize their arguments (using first names for brevity). Steven’s argument is that a school with an a priori faith commitment, especially one with a formal faith statement faculty must adhere to, is incompatible with academic freedom. Using examples of Bryan College (which he initially placed in Dayton, OH instead of Dayton, TN), Cedarville University, and Wheaton College (IL), he explores actions taken by administrators that have caused faculty members to leave (or been fired). He suggests that taxpayers might be unaware that “we subsidize religion through our system of support for higher education”. His complaints about Bryan come primarily from New York Times stories on the Bryan controversies and Cedarville’s from an 18 year old story from Harpers. He rightly looks at the religious history of American universities and says that their religious groundings shifted at places like Cornell and Harvard late in the 19th century. He goes on:

And for good reason. Higher education is dedicated to untrammeled inquiry rather than faithful submission. It starts with questions and explores them to their limits, not with answers that are then back-filled. It cultivates skepticism rather than insisting on credulity. Christian colleges pursue the opposite agenda. Questions already have answers …

Peter’s argument begins with a standard recitation of concerns about regional accreditation: too much focus on inputs, not enough attention to quality concerns, too tradition bound. He suggests that the primary motivation for schools to be accredited is for their students to gain access to Title IV funds (Pell Grants, Work Study, and Subsidized Loans). He cites two reports from the past decade that suggest accreditation needs attention. He also mentions his experience in overseeing a self-study and serving on an evaluation team at another school. Then he turns to his real agenda. Christian colleges should not be accredited because “they erect religious tests for truth”. He cites a faculty member at Bryan (from the New York Times) and critiques Wheaton for having its faculty sign faith statements. He says:

Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.

There have been some wonderful responses written in the last few days. Baylor Humanities professor Alan Jacobs and Wheaton Provost Stanton Jones provided excellent rebuttals. Jacobs focuses on the actual dynamics of accreditation (as opposed to those suggested by Peter). Jones writes eloquently about the moral foundations of all scholarly inquiry.

My responses to the Conns is based on my unique career path. I have been in Christian Higher Ed for 33 years, serving as faculty member and as senior academic administrator. I’ve been in five different Christian institutions and know quite a bit about a score of others. I have served as an evaluator in two of the six accreditation regions and been trained for the Higher Learning Commission. I’ve written a self-study, dealt with academic freedom questions from my faculty colleagues, and teach sociology in Christian institutions (which needs academic freedom protections from time to time!).

I’ll respond to Peter’s claims first. From everything I learned in my years working with accreditors (I’ve done three full-scale visits, four follow-up visits, and served on a program review panel) the central theme has always been about the primacy of institutional mission. What does it mean for Wheaton College to pursue its unique role? That must be clearly defined and give direction to all other aspects of the life of the College. Academic Freedom is seen within the context of mission. The same is true at the University of Pennsylvania. For the record, the last ten years has seen the regional accreditors moving rapidly to student outcome measures, increased focus on issues of alignment, and the significant role of faculty governance as part of protecting that alignment of mission, program, and policy. Boards of Trustees must be independent bodies that, while perhaps representing a sponsoring denomination, cannot be answering to the denomination. The schools are expected to be independent and protecting the educational mission at it impacts students. (That’s another distinction one could explore: academic freedom should find its expression in student learning and not simply in faculty statements.) I would wager that our impact on students at Christian institutions, especially on controversial issues, is greater that than of the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven’s argument about academic freedom is hard to fathom. He focuses on two somewhat rogue institutions (even by Christian college standards). I’ve written before about both Bryan and Cedarville. In both cases (as with Shorter), the situation was one where the administration violated principles of shared governance and forced changes upon existing faculty. They did have their academic freedom limited by dominant positions on Adam and Eve or the role of women in ministry.

But this was not inherent in all Christian Colleges. it  was the result of failure of alignment of mission and educational process in two specific institutions. Here’s a recent piece on on a Calvin College faculty member’s academic freedom regarding the study of human origins. The schools I’ve served carefully wrestle with the need for considering alternative viewpoint in ways that are accessible by students. It’s true that one needs to be more nuanced about how to present those viewpoints and that a capable academic administrator (I pray I was one) is able to deflect external attacks by pointing back to the centrality of institutional mission.

As I’ve written, our commitment as Christian institutions and as Christian scholars is not to some rigid dogma that constrains our free thinking. It is a belief that we are doing important work in preparing our students to live in the Kingdom of God. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the hard work of community, we model what real inquiry looks like. I would love for Steven (who thinks he couldn’t be invited to Cedarville) to spend a few days with the faculty at Spring Arbor. He’d learn quite a bit.

One more thing: My friend George Yancey has written on anti-religious bias in the academy. While he and I disagree on the extent of that, these articles seem to demonstrate his point. I cannot imagine either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the Huffington Post publishing a takedown of research universities as sloppily argued as the pieces by the Conns. We’d have a much higher standard to meet in terms of structure of argument and evidentiary support. The bias comes out in how easy it is for critics to cherry-pick egregious cases.

This is why the rest of us have got to find a way of changing the media narrative about Christian Higher Education.

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Phil Thibedeaux says:

    our commitment as Christian institutions and as Christian scholars is not to some rigid dogma that constrains our free thinking

    Would you agree, then, that if schools _do_ enforce rigid dogma that constrains free thinking, it might be a good idea for those particular schools to lose accreditation? Or is this a red herring?

    • Not completely a red herring, but contingent on institutional mission. It’s hypothetically possible for a Christian institution to define its mission in terms of complete indoctrination instead of the development of critical thinking (couldn’t call itself a liberal arts institution). Assuming it could attract faculty who were looking for such a school who had appropriate credentials (a stretch) AND could find students willing to attend (increasingly rare) I suppose it could maintain accreditation.

      In reality, the accreditation standards call for certain commitments to intellectual openness, appropriate faculty expression, shared governance, and an independent board. If those were missing it would be painfully obvious to the visiting committee and the commissioners and the school would almost certainly be cited for missing standards. Steps would need to be taken to remedy the situation (within about 18 months) or further sanctions attach. But these are hard cases to demonstrate without imposing external values on the institution. That’s why schools are most often cited for financial shortcomings, which are the byproducts of too much turnover and too little enrollment.

      In short, I think accreditation is one of the last things to fall. The school that insists on the kind of rigid dogma you suggest will have major enrollment challenges far sooner than accreditation visits roll around (the Bryan College situation over the next two years may well show exactly that).

  2. Phil Thibedeaux says:

    The school that insists on the kind of rigid dogma you suggest will have major enrollment challenges far sooner than accreditation visits roll around

    That seems to be a non-sequitur. A school that insists on rigid dogma might advertise itself as such and draw students from all over the country, particularly students from families whose parents don’t want them exposed to anything but rigid dogma. On the other hand, an excellent school (however we choose to define that word, but let’s pretend there’s assume that we might both agree on) might face enrollment challenges because of issues not related to curriculum or intellectual freedom. If we accepted your logic, that the market will weed out bad schools, then there would be no need for accreditation in the first place.

    • Your comment identifies parents (I’d add churches) as liking rigid dogma, but the movement of millennials away from that kind of rigidity is going to be the driving force in institutional change in Christian Higher Education over the next decade.

      There are some market forces in play, but they aren’t the major dynamic in the short term (demography is far more important). The role of accreditation as an ongoing presence is that it defines standards all institutions have voluntarily agreed to attend to. It’s not the pulling of the plug that’s the dynamic but the measure of the institution against the standards (within the context of institutional mission).

      An excellent school (sufficiently resources and aligned with mission) can face enrollment challenges in the short term but that won’t threaten institutional survival.

  3. […] Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges: Responding to the Conn Articles […]

  4. […] Since the U of M is a comprehensive research university, it has the preamble about applying knowledge. But its focus on students as leaders and citizens sounds an awful lot like Gordon’s desire for graduates who are intellectually mature, who are faithful Christians, and who will provide leadership and service. We should see each other as complimentary institutions and not sources of suspicion. So why the animosity that showed up in comments like the Conns? […]

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