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Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Intellectual Diversity, Academic Freedom, and the Christian College



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For some time now, true intellectual diversity has only existed in higher education because of the brave decision of a few — mostly religious — private colleges and universities to offer an institutional alternative to the vast and powerful academic mainstream. These colleges (such as my undergraduate alma mater) often require faculty to sign statements of faith and require students to abide by faith-based standards of conduct. Within that constraint, they also offer a place where faculty members (particularly faculty members in humanities) who are not captive to the often nihilistic, identity-based, postmodern fads of contemporary academy can thrive as teachers and scholars.

For some time, however, religious schools have had a bit of a PR problem — they offered a form of freedom that is too often not available at secular universities, but that freedom came with limits not applicable at public universities. All too often, the emphasis was on the limitation, not the liberty.  

Thus, I was glad to see Azusa Pacific University’s new effort to describe its academic freedoms in a manner that is more consistent with its religious nature and the overwhelmingly secular times.  Money graphs:

“Christian colleges and universities offer the freedom to pursue spiritual and religious truths,” explained Vicky R. Bowden, a professor of nursing who chaired the academic freedom task force at Azusa Pacific University, an “interdenominational” institution in California. “We feel that this is a freedom and it’s not usually associated with or enjoyed officially in secular academic institutions and we wanted our document to be able to articulate that.

. . . 

The revised statement is much more explicit about what those limitations are, although it doesn’t frame them as such, but instead as unique opportunities (in the revision, the word “limitations” does not appear, as it does in the first). The new statement reads, in part: “Azusa Pacific University seeks to maintain an academic community in which faculty are free to engage in rigorous scholarly inquiry and expression within an intellectual context shaped by the evangelical Christian tradition. In addition to this freedom, Azusa Pacific University seeks to pursue scholarly inquiry and expression in a way that extends and enriches the academic disciplines out of the unique resources provided by our institution’s identity.

This is exactly right.  The university’s Christian tradition provides its scholars with freedoms they simply wouldn’t enjoy within the academic mainstream. As we see from extensive studies of faculty political/religious beliefs, the freedom enjoyed by faculty members on mainstream campuses is frequently the freedom not to be Christian, not the freedom to be Christian.  

When a private school is clear about its intellectual tradition, clear about its faith-based requirements, and consistent in its application of those requirements, it is not violating anyone’s academic-freedom rights. What it is doing, however, is providing a home for dissidents in an ideological monoculture, and that is a feature, not a bug.



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