Academic freedom and the faith-based university

Eve Stringham is vice provost, research and graduate studies, at Trinity Western University.

Yes, the two can co-exist with a little understanding and goodwill.

With any freedom comes the responsibility to execute that freedom wisely. Academic freedom is no different. While some would like to think academic freedom is synonymous with no restrictions on teaching and research, that is not the case.

Universities are bound by the law and the regulations of funding agencies. We also carry a moral responsibility to pursue research questions ethically and have research ethics boards, animal care committees and biosafety officers to ensure these standards are met.

At the same time, campuses wrestle with how to promote inclusive and safe teaching and learning spaces. The fundamental ethical principles of autonomy, non-maleficence, benevolence and justice provide a framework to shape how academic freedom works best in research, the inclusive classroom and the academy.

At its best, an inclusive academy offers individuals the autonomy to express their ideas in a manner that is respectful and does no harm.

In 2016, Trinity Western University’s president and senate created a joint task force to examine the state of academic freedom on campus. Its mandate was “to review, affirm or revise Trinity Western University’s existing statement on academic freedom and to recommend a process to deal with complaints or differences of opinion or thought in relation to academic freedom in keeping with the existing policy on dispute resolution and provide a report back to the senate.”

As part of its work, the task force consulted with faculty, staff, students and the board of governors; researched the academic freedom statements of various public and faith-based private universities in both Canada and abroad; and reviewed the literature.

In its report, the task force recommended a renewed commitment to the Universities Canada and Tri-agency statements on academic freedom, both of which promote an appropriate balance between freedom of inquiry and expression, and an understanding of the ethical responsibilities attached to academic freedom.

The task force report also emphasized that academic freedom must be supported at all levels within the organization. The faculty has a vital role in ensuring that the classroom is a safe space that encourages students to openly discuss ideas and listen thoughtfully to those with whom they may disagree.

In this context, our task force recommended that faculty receive professional development training on how to promote inclusivity and academic freedom in the classroom. Staff and board members similarly need to understand what academic freedom is and is not, to support faculty, students and the institution.

Currently, I serve in an administrative role as vice provost, research and graduate studies, at TWU. In this capacity, I have an essential role in upholding academic freedom while ensuring that the research conducted by the faculty and students adheres to the ethical standards outlined in the Tri-agency policies on integrity in scholarship and responsible conduct in research.

I am a former holder of a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair and have held several grants over the years with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. My research area in developmental genetics and cell biology relies on the paradigm of evolution to be successful. I have pursued this line of research without issue at TWU, a Christian university.

As a theistic evolutionist, I have long since reconciled science with scripture, recognizing that the Bible contains several types of literary genres. But I suppose, to a young earth creationist, my theological perspective and research could seem radical, even heretical, and occasionally I encounter that perspective in the classroom.

However, because TWU students come from many different religious or non-religious traditions, non-Christian perspectives are also represented. I try to encourage dialogue from all of these perspectives in the classroom, which of course is difficult when views (including my own) are firmly held.

Because my academic freedom has never come under attack at TWU, it came as a surprise to me when the Canadian Association of University Teachers began a series of investigations into faith-based universities and constructed a censure list of institutions that, in CAUT’s words, apply a “faith test” as a condition of employment and, therefore, could not possibly uphold academic freedom.

I am not aware of a single incident where an employee at TWU was dismissed or disciplined for exercising their academic freedom, nor of any complaints made by TWU faculty to CAUT about academic freedom. And yet CAUT decided that, ipso facto, faith and academic freedom at the university could not co-exist. With such a biased position, CAUT is surprisingly placing a significant restriction on the diversity of the academy and the autonomy of its institutions.

Faith-based institutions attract faculty and staff who share a common belief system – in TWU’s case, a Christian worldview. Truth be told, if I were an academic at any other institution, I would still be a Christian, and that perspective would influence my outlook on life, values and even the research that I choose to pursue. The difference is that at TWU I am able to express my Christian worldview in the classroom freely, and it influences how I teach.

For example, I teach a cancer biology course which includes a research ethics board-approved project where each student is paired with a cancer patient for the semester. The student interviews the patient to discover more about their personal experience with the illness. With the patient’s consent, the student also commits to praying for the patient throughout the semester.

If a student is not religious or feels uncomfortable praying, I adapt the assignment for them and pray for the patient on their behalf. Also, each class begins with the story of one of these patients, and then the entire class prays for them.

The goal of the assignment is to encourage the student, who may be bound for a career in health care or biomedical research, to understand the personal dimension for those living with a cancer diagnosis. It is the fact that the student and class are openly praying for the patient that is often cited as being the most gratifying aspect to them. Even for patients who are not Christian, the idea that a stranger would be willing to walk alongside them in this way is an excellent source of encouragement.

I suppose if I were at a public institution, the student could still interview the patient, but I would probably be restricted from including prayer in the assignment or classroom. So, in this case, which institution, secular or faith-based, is limiting academic freedom?

In a recent review of the book The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom (William Ringenberg, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham sums up the situation nicely:

Ringenberg observes that academic freedom is an ideal that is difficult to fully achieve at any institution, whether secular or faith-affiliated. He maps out a continuum whereby indoctrination (as the antithesis of the intellectual engagement required for academic freedom) can occur at religious and secular institutions.

At one end is the religious college that sees itself as defender of the faith, is heavily oriented toward study of one faith, and with a teaching ethos of considerable indoctrination.

At the other end is the secular university that sees itself as a discourager of the faith, is limited or ignores study of religion of any sort, and likewise carries a teaching ethos of considerable indoctrination, even if not recognizing it as such.

In the center of the continuum, the more moderate, desirable approaches at religious and secular universities hold openness, discernment, and fairness to multiple views as seekers of truth (Christian Scholars Review, winter 2018).

Ironically, this issue came up when I recently applied for an administrative job at a public university. The faculty union executive protested my candidacy because, if I were hired, they felt academic freedom at the university would be in jeopardy because of my previous employment at a faith-based institution.

CAUT’s report and censure list of religious institutions were cited in the union’s rationale as to why it was boycotting me. To their credit, the administration and many professors of the university in question recognized the hypocrisy in trying to deny my candidacy.

But this experience highlighted for me how academics could be quite close-minded on the subject of academic freedom, even when they think they are upholding it. This ultimately is what reduces inclusivity and threatens academic freedom on our campuses.

I hope that the academy will embrace the academic freedom that is respectful of different points of view, promotes a thorough debate, and refrains from hate speech, extreme reactions or limiting positions that only serve to damage the reputation of the academy as a whole.  Blacklisting scholars or entire universities is not appropriate. As academics, surely we should be able to “profess” our various perspectives with intelligence and debate them openly with grace.

Eve Stringham is vice provost, research and graduate studies, at Trinity Western University.

This comment first appeared May 8 in University Affairs (“Canada’s most authoritative source of information about and for Canada’s university community”) and is re-posted by permission of the author.

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