Some Thoughts about the Current Accreditation Kerfuffle (and Academic Freedom)

Some Thoughts about the Current Accreditation Kerfuffle (and Academic Freedom) July 19, 2014

Some Thoughts about the Current Accreditation Kerfuffle (and Academic Freedom)

I love the word “kerfuffle” but don’t use it often enough. I happen to believe that, at least in America, we are reducing our vocabulary to too few words. I recently heard that one needs only 500 English words to engage in English conversation. But there are so many great words in English—like “kerfuffle.” Let’s all stretch our vocabularies to include unusual but descriptive words.

Recently a professor at a university in Pennsylvania published an article arguing that Christian colleges (like Wheaton”) should not be accredited. The article is “The Great Accreditation Farce” and the author is Peter Conn, professor of English and education at the University of Pennsylvania. The article is published in the June 30 online issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Google it.)

Professor Conn argues that institutions of higher education that require faculty members to sign a “faith statement” should not be granted regional accreditation because that undermines the very nature and purpose of higher education which is an unfettered search for truth using reason. He calls the accreditation of Christian colleges and universities a “scandal.”

Interestingly, Professor Conn doesn’t mention Jewish colleges or universities or ones associated with other religions or ideologies. However, his point seems clear enough: colleges and universities where faculty are held accountable to religious dogmas ought not to be accredited by regional accrediting associations. (He doesn’t mention religious accrediting associations so I have to assume he doesn’t care about them.)

Professor Conn’s main concern seems to be academic freedom. For him it is sacrosanct in higher education. Without it, a college or university cannot really be engaged in the fundamental tasks of higher education.

I have read responses to his article and his argument by several leading evangelical Christian educators and college/university administrators. For the most part they are predictable. Here are the points they make: 1) There is no such thing as absolute, unfettered academic freedom. Even in the most secular institutions of higher education there are always unwritten, if not written, standards and criteria that limit what faculty members can say and do; 2) Conn’s view of education is distinctly modern and we now live in a postmodern era. There is no such things as a “view from nowhere.” All research and pursuit of truth is value-laden and at least somewhat ideologically-driven, including Conn’s beliefs about academic freedom; 3) Many Christian colleges and universities that have statements of faith that faculty must sign and abide by have greater academic freedom than secular colleges and universities where informal, unwritten expectations (e.g., of secularity and/or multiculturalism) are very stringent and enforced by the faculty in matters of hiring, promotion and tenure; 4) Education is not only about the pursuit of facts; it is also about character formation—something that requires some limits on academic freedom (e.g., presumably even Conn would not want a colleague who becomes an outspoken white supremacist to get tenure); 5) Regional accreditation is intentionally flexible with regard to colleges’ and universities’ mission statements. All regional accreditation means is that the accredited institution lives up to its mission and does what it says it does.

I have taught in three Christian universities over thirty-two years. Before that I attended and earned degrees from a Christian college, a Christian seminary, and a secular national research university of high standing (Rice University). I also studied at a German university for one year. I served as editor of an academic journal for five years and there worked closely with faculty members and administrators of about fifty Christian colleges and universities. During my thirty-two years of teaching in three Christian universities (one was called a college when I taught there but is now called a university) I worked very closely on accreditation matters—serving on self-study committees and writing self-study documents for renewal of accreditation. I can legitimately claim to know quite a bit about accreditation of institutions of higher education in America.

Here are my responses to Professor Conn (and those who agree with him) and to his evangelical academic critics:

First, Professor Conn clearly does not agree with the American system of regional accreditation of institutions of higher education. Regional accreditation associations are not government entities or agencies but are constituted by their member institutions. In other words, it is a self-governing system of accreditation. When making the final determination about whether a college or university should be accredited, a diverse group of academics of peer institutions that are already accredited visit the institution, interview administrators and faculty (and sometimes students) and read the institution’s self-study documents. If they have questions they can insist on further explanation and documentation. The main criterion of accreditation is that the institution does what it claims to do in its mission statement and other documents that express its purposes. Included in that determination is whether the institution is financially viable. Other questions and issues can be and often are raised and accrediting associations have rules and regulations regarding credit hours required for certain degrees, etc., to protect against accredited institutions simply selling degrees.

All that is to say that, from what I have read, Professor Conn does not understand or else does not agree with the American system of regional accreditation. Christian colleges and universities are already firmly embedded in regional accreditation associations as full members in good standing. Who does he want to throw them out? They are not government entities; they are composed of member institutions. It is all a system of peer review and Christian colleges and universities are, within the system, peers of his own university (whatever he thinks about them).

Second, Professor Conn does seem to be laboring under an illusion (if not delusion) that there exists some “view from nowhere” unfettered by any unprovable beliefs or values. He needs to read Thomas Kuhn’s The Nature of Scientific Revolutions and Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Also Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Reason with the Bounds of Religion. Professor Conn seems (based on this article alone) to be a dinosaur in terms of philosophy.

Third, having said all that, I must admit to having some sympathy with Professor Conn’s concerns. Some Christian institutions of higher education are unworthy of peer esteem, if not of accreditation, but so are some secular institutions of higher education! Conn seems particularly  concerned with formal, written statements of dogma that inhibit free inquiry within institutions. When I was a graduate student, working on my Ph.D. at a major, national research university without any religious history or affiliation, I was told by one of my dissertation committee members (a full, tenured professor of the university) that I could not write my dissertation the way I intended to. The issue was not its subject or structure but my agreement with the theologian who was the subject of my dissertation. The committee member informed me that he would never vote to accept my dissertation unless I was mainly critical of the theologian. This had nothing to do with academics; it was a matter of that professor’s own beliefs and tastes. He strongly disagreed with the theologian (a German Lutheran theologian of world renown) about certain matters that had nothing to do with objective facts but only with the professor’s own theological proclivities. I had to rewrite my dissertation to satisfy him. My dissertation committee chairman tried to rein him in and get him to permit me to agree with the subject of the dissertation but he stubbornly refused. I had no choice but to revise my dissertation to please him. This is common in higher education—including in secular academics. I have heard similar stories from many academics. Anyone who has worked in a secular institution of higher education knows that there is no such thing as absolute academic freedom. Try conducting research on whether boys actually are better than girls, overall, at math and science. Even raising the possibility will get you in trouble in many secular institutions of higher education. Politics, in the broad sense of the term, is endemic in American secular higher education. There are many questions one cannot raise or pursue in one’s research.

My first full time teaching position was at a Christian university without any formal, written statement of faith. At no point in the interviewing or hiring process was I shown a statement of faith and asked whether I agreed with it or not. I asked for one and was told by the provost and the dean under whom I would be working that no such thing existed there and never would. Well, that should satisfy Professor Conn. Except that, at that particular Christian university, the whims and fancies of the president interfered constantly with academics. Professors who were perceived by the president as “disloyal” were publicly shamed in faculty meetings and made to stand and apologize to him. The president changed titles of courses willy-nilly, by whim, and refused to allow the existence of a philosophy department or major in philosophy in “his” university. I’m sure Professor Conn would argue that that university and ones like it should not be accredited. But I know of secular universities where presidents act as tyrants, punishing faculty members they don’t like. I won’t name him here, but some years ago there was a well-known university president who went around to several secular universities (hired by regents) to “fix” the faculties and he was well-known as an enemy of academic freedom. In most universities, including secular ones, the president has the power to deny tenure to a faculty member even when the tenure committee recommends he or she be granted it. It is not at all unheard of for presidents of secular universities (to say nothing of tenure committees) to deny tenure to candidates who are regarded as mavericks.

Christian universities and colleges do well to protest Professor Conn’s (really quite ridiculous) argument, but they would do better to fix their own problems with academic freedom. In my experience, many Christian institutions of higher education do violate academic freedom—often even when the professor is teaching consistently with the institution’s statement of faith and mission statement. Many Christian colleges and universities are overly sensitive to “constituents’ concerns” and during the past three decades (since the rise of the “Religious Right”) those concerns have become increasingly antithetical to academic freedom.

Over the past three decades, self-appointed guardians of dogma (neo-fundamentalists parading themselves as “conservative evangelicals”) have organized to put tremendous pressure on Christian colleges and universities. They comb the institutions’ statements of faith to find minor points that they can blow out of all proportion to get faculty members fired—often just to demonstrate how “liberal” faculty at Christian colleges and universities have become (which is really not the case overall). I taught at a well-known evangelical Christian college (now a university) for fifteen years and witnessed it come under unbelievable and unwarranted attacks from hyper-conservative constituents. A group of pastors of the college’s constituent denomination organized, gave themselves a name (that of one of the denomination’s founders) and dedicated themselves to purging the faculty of those they perceived as heterodox. One colleague in particular came under tremendous pressure from pastors and the lay people they influenced and eventually was subjected to a heresy trial. He did not teach against anything in the denomination’s or college’s statement of faith, but his critics appealed to a “penumbra” of the statement of faith—what they thought its authors intended—to attempt to get my colleague fired. The college attempted to resist, but financial and other pressures forced the college eventually to bow to the pressure. My colleague was never fired, but he was marginalized and the president promised never again to hire someone who held his controversial views. And the president told our department (Biblical and Theological Studies) not to talk about that particular controversial belief. It was a clear violation of academic freedom.

At another Christian college, a well-known evangelical one, the regents hired a president with the clear intention of reining in the faculty. He published a book about Christian colleges in which he stated that any faculty member of any Christian college who had any “mental reservations” about any part of the college’s statement of faith should leave. Ironically, at that college, a student found a blatant doctrinal error in the authoritative statement of faith and pointed it out. The president and regents changed the statement of faith to become doctrinally correct! If a faculty member had noticed it, would he or she have been punished by the president? The president’s book left no room for correction of the college’s statement of faith. This is a travesty. Every college and university, including Christian ones, ought to have some method by which faculty members can challenge the institution’s stated beliefs with good reasons and be safe. That same evangelical college president told my president that he should fire me because I expressed the opinion that one could be evangelical and also modalistic with regard to the Trinity insofar as he or she is open to correction and is moving in the direction of orthodox trinitarianism (e.g., T. D. Jakes).

The plain fact of the matter is that many Christian colleges and universities have fallen under an academic “chill” where faculty do not feel free to publish the findings of their research even when they do not directly contradict the statement of faith. How? Administrators communicate to the faculty that constituents have a “concern” and teaching or publishing about a certain opinion, even if well founded by research, may hinder fund raising and student recruitment. Most Christian colleges and universities are so dependent on financial gifts, church support, and tuition that they cannot afford to have even one faculty member who holds even one view that stirs up the most conservative elements of the constituents.

I once heard a Christian college president say to a constituent congregation that the college’s main purpose is to “perpetuate the denomination’s distinctive.” Really? Such a statement makes me sympathize with Professor Conn’s concerns (even though I do not agree with him about pulling such a college’s accreditation). Shouldn’t a Christian college’s or university’s main purpose be promoting the kingdom of God including discovering truth wherever it may be found (because all truth is God’s truth)? I think so.

Christian college and university administrators need to put up more resistance to constitutents’ “concerns” when those concerns are petty, as they often are. And they need to think through what academic freedom really means in their contexts and guarantee that faculty members who work within the framework of the college’s or university’s basic beliefs and mission are protected from heresy-hunts and conservative constituents’ whims.

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