Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Downs on Religion


The indispensable Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (incidentally, there are few professors who should formally change their first names to “The Indispensable,” such as “The Indispensable KC Johnson of Brooklyn” or “The Indispensable Robbie George of Princeton”) has an interesting post in the NAS online forum on “Religion and the University”  (hat tip: FIRE).  In the post, he rightly notes that the conflict between religious liberty and the diversity/tolerance orthodoxy of the modern “proprietary university” represents the “next major wave of campus liberty claims.”  Downs explains:  

Historically speaking, the liberal university was the product of the growing emphasis upon scientific inquiry (broadly defined) in research universities and institutions dedicated to the open-ended investigation and testing of ideas. This type of institution superseded what the American Association of University Professors has called the “proprietary university,” which is the type of university devoted to promoting a particular vision of truth. Historically, most proprietary institutions have been religious in nature. In key respects, the rise of the liberal university represented the ascendance of science over religion in the hierarchy of academic values.

Ironically, the post-liberal university embodies a new kind of proprietary institution, as it emphasizes ends extrinsic to the pursuit of truth. Indeed, some critics have observed that the drive for diversity itself has taken on a quasi-religious character on some campuses. But “diversity” seldom means intellectual diversity, as post-liberal universities are often characterized by a tiresome orthodoxy of opinion.

Meanwhile, another trend related to religion merits watching: the onset of religious liberty issues on campuses nation-wide. Cases addressing religion have emerged while many of us were preoccupied with the more typical cases involving the suppression of political ideas and speech. But religion cases could constitute the next major wave of campus liberty claims. These cases often entail restrictions on private prayer sessions (e.g., those led by resident assistants) and denial of official recognition or funding to religious groups. Unlike other campus liberty cases, which have typically pitted the liberal vision of the university against its post-liberal adversary, religion controversies pose challenges to both models of higher education.

I tend to think there’s more than enough room for both the “proprietary” and “liberal” models of the academy.  For my undergraduate education, I attended a classic “proprietary” religious college, one dedicated to advancing a particular, distinctly Christian vision of Truth.  My law school education was supposed to occur at a “liberal” university, dedicated to the “testing of ideas.”  Instead (sadly), I stepped into a different version of the proprietary university, one dedicated to advancing a vision of truth that was often diametrically opposed to the vision advanced during college.   In a pluralistic and free country, there is room (and a vital role) for proprietary universities.  Indeed, a university that adopts a proprietary stance is in fact exercising its own constitutional freedoms in a manner that contributes to the national (and global) marketplace of ideas.  But we must be clear, the choice to become “proprietary” belongs to the private university alone.  Public universities, as arms of the government belonging to the citizens, simply do not have the right to exclude or suppress those points of view disfavored by the government employees who populate its administration and faculties.  If we permitted such government discrimination, we would be violating the most fundamental elements of our constitutional compact.  In fact, it is wrong to think of campus facilities as belonging to the “university.”  Instead, they belong to the public.  “University” funds are public funds and “university” actions are governmental actions.    Thus, when conflicts over religious liberty arise, the question is not “does this religious idea or act fit within university values or the university’s mission?” but instead whether the religious idea or act fit within the range of expression the Constitution protects.  Religious organizations can organize and exist on public university campuses because of their status as individual or corporate citizens of the nation and state — independent of any perceived merit in their ideas or fit with “university” notions of inclusion or tolerance.   The “next major wave of campus liberty claims” owes much of its existence to confusion (and sometimes willful blindness) over the “freedom” of public universities to pursue a proprietary path.  While the question of whether the “ideal” university should be proprietary or liberal and — if proprietary — which ideas should be advanced and which groups included is fascinating and important, for the public university it is also moot.  In the public university, no citizens are second class and no constitutionally-protected ideas off limits.  Administrators and faculty members may not like that reality, but it is the reality nonetheless. 


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