How Christian Institutiosn of Higher Education Should Respond to Faculty Members Whose Research Results Are Controversial
First of all, before attempting to answer the implied question with a proposal, I have to say that there are many kinds of Christian institutions of higher education. Here I am ONLY referring to ones that claim academic integrity and excellence. And I am ONLY referring to ones that WANT that claim to be taken seriously.
Academic integrity requires academic freedom. On the other hand, no academic institution has absolute academic freedom. There are always limits and boundaries. SOME have real tenure in which case a faculty member with tenure cannot be fired for any claims made as a result of real research in his or her discipline. (There are always other grounds for firing a tenured professor such as failing to fulfill his or her contract, criminal activity, etc. These reasons for being fired are spelled out in faculty handbooks.)
Officially confessional religious colleges, universities and seminaries are permitted by the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) to fire tenured professors who blatantly, knowingly, contradict the clearly stated confessional standards of the institution.
However, over the many years of my career in Christian higher education (three notable Christian universities and service as editor of a scholarly journal published by fifty such) I have witnessed the firing of several faculty members who did not violate their contracts or blatantly transgress the written confessional standards of their institutions. In every case I know of the firings took place because the faculty members published research conclusions considered “too controversial” for the institution and its constituency.
Such instances absolutely violate academic freedom and when they happen the institutions ought to be called out for lack of academic integrity.
The solution is to study the faculty member’s controversial conclusions in depth and then, at worst, give him or her non-teaching assignments.
Firing a tenured faculty member is a very serious violation of academic integrity and freedom. An institution that does that without valid cause (as stated above) is announcing to the world that it lacks academic integrity.
A five year contract is not tenure and the only response to an institution that calls it such is laughter and scorn. It is a farce.So what ought a confessional Christian institution of higher learning to do when a faculty member teaches and/or publishes very controversial conclusions based on serious research? If the institution considers it a serious enough matter it should publish a statement saying it does not agree and leave it at that.
Otherwise, academic freedom is meaningless. And academic freedom is crucial to academic integrity. In fact, an institution that fires professors without good cause (such as the few mentioned above) ought to be sued and condemned by professional societies, accrediting agencies, and shunned by other Christian academics.
Some years ago a Christian college fired a professor who held a controversial opinion about God. The college hired him knowing all about his opinion and the college had long tolerated the same opinion held by a well-known faculty member. However, when some constituent pastors “raised a stink” about the newer faculty member’s published view the college fired him. In my opinion, that college proved itself unworthy of being taken seriously as an academic institution.
Another but very different case study. A few years ago a Christian college president wrote that any faculty member who had mental reservations about the college’s statement of faith ought to resign. Then a student discovered a blatant doctrinal error in the statement of faith and the president changed the statement of faith to be more orthodox.
What if a faculty member had discovered the error? Perhaps one did and was afraid to mention it. This kind of hyper-orthodoxy sends a chill over academic discovery and achievement—even when it can be helpful to an institution.
My point is that Christian institutions of higher education need to get serious about academic freedom—while acknowledging that pure, absolute, total academic freedom never exists anywhere. Firing especially tenured faculty members (or faculty members who were hired with full knowledge of their non-traditional views) undermines Christian institutions’ claims to being serious about scholarship.
*Note: As always, here I write only for myself; I do not write for anyone else. These are my own opinions, not those of any particular other person, groups or organization. If you choose to respond, be nice. Explain yourself concisely. Do not misrepresent anything I wrote. I will not approve comments that are in any way uncivil, insulting or argumentative. Keep your comment brief and to the point. Do not post a sermon or a cliche or Scripture passages (only). This is a space for serious dialogue among serious-minded Christians and those interested in serious Christian thought.