OKWU’s Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, Dr. Gentry Sutton, penned the following defense of academic freedom following a recent conference.
A few months ago, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, Dr. John Ellison, made headlines because of a letter he sent to University of Chicago incoming freshmen. In the letter, Ellison informed new students that the university was committed to academic freedom and that it would not be a place where students or professors would be silenced because someone was offended by their opinions. Ellison was praised by conservatives and a lot of other people who were tired of political correctness and the “hate-speech” policies that are dumbing down higher learning and violating people’s First Amendment rights. Below are excerpts from a couple of paragraphs from Ellison’s letter.
You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort….
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
Pretty awesome for a large, secular university, right?
The letter was driven in part by the University of Chicago’s “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” which may be read here. The report is a three-page document describing the university’s commitment to academic freedom, and it was authored by various faculty members at the University of Chicago, one of them being Dr. Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.
A few days ago, I heard Dr. Stone speak at the annual meeting of the Higher Learning Commission in Chicago. The Higher Learning Commission is the regional, federally recognized accreditation agency for colleges in a nineteen-state region, mostly those in the Midwest and Great Plains. Dr. Stone was the day’s keynote speaker.
Stone, a First Amendment scholar, has been a longtime supporter of academic freedom and has authored various books and articles on the topic. I was excited to hear from him—and I was more than a little curious about how he was going to be critical of campus speech codes with an audience comprised of thousands of academics, many of whom had championed speech codes and fostered the political correctness and campus bullying that he finds so problematic.
Stone might not be sympathetic to certain issues that evangelicals find important, but he has a respectable record of pushing back against the modern liberalism that has too often silenced Christian voices in higher education. Though his keynote speech at times called attention to his secular worldview, he was, for the most part, fair—and he said a lot of things that evangelicals in the room were probably “amen-ing” under their breath. He cited many examples of how academia’s political correctness has been at odds with First Amendment liberties, and his examples underscored his criticism of both the Right and the Left.
Like most proponents of classical liberalism and traditionally understood academic freedom, Stone believes academic freedom is a broad freedom, but not a freedom without limits. As he and his colleagues wrote in the aforementioned “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,”
The University may restrict expression  that violates the law,  that falsely defames a specific individual,  that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment,  that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or  that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University [my numbering, added for clarity below.] In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.
In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.
In many ways, Stone’s presentation was a refreshing one…
…until his question-and-answer segment.
While Stone’s position is a welcomed one by those of us in Christian institutions who have felt marginalized for so many years, his forty minutes or so of beautiful rhetoric seemed all for naught when he fielded a single question from one audience member.
The question, presumably from a man who worked at a Christian institution, revolved around how faculty and administrators at faith-based institutions were supposed to navigate the turbulent waters of academic freedom while staying true to their missions. While not stated explicitly, I believe the man was hinting at the tension between Stone’s fifth reason for restriction of expression (above)—that the university may restrict expression “that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University”—and the fact that Christian scholars and secular scholars sometimes have competing understandings of “the functioning of the University.”
While Stone rightly acknowledged that private institutions have the LEGAL right to define academic freedom as something that does not go beyond the parameters of their missions, he went on to say that religious, confessional colleges and universities that view academic freedom in such a way are, in his opinion, “not true colleges and universities.”
That’s right: “not true colleges and universities.”
It is important for me to point out that Stone was not speaking on behalf of the Higher Learning Commission. Therefore, his statement should not be construed as representative of this important accrediting agency. However, he was the day’s keynote speaker—and for every evangelical in the room who perhaps reacted physically, as I did, there were probably three attendees who would agree with his statement. Thus, I was not surprised by Stone’s answer to the audience member’s question.
Nonetheless, I was caught off guard by the fact that he voiced it in front of thousands of conference attendees, many of whom were representing Christian institutions. And as I visited throughout the day with colleagues from other Christian institutions, I learned that I was not alone.
Stone’s response to the question essentially nullified his entire speech—I will explain how below—and alienated many of the Christians in the room.
As Christians, we can take Stone’s remark as an important learning moment and an opportunity to clarify the choice that parents and students have when they choose a school such as the University of Chicago or a school such as Oklahoma Wesleyan University. With his mostly good speech and his very unfortunate answer to the audience member’s question, Stone was implying a couple of things that we dare not miss.
First, he was implying that the freedom to research new ideas, question existing knowledge, go outside the box, and chase and condone ideas that may be subversive is more important in the educational process than learning and applying Truth. This idea can be stated in a way that is probably more familiar to most of us: “the role of the university is to teach students HOW to think, not WHAT to think.”
The rightness of the “teach-how-to-think-not-what-to-think” mindset has been a foregone conclusion, even among most conservative Christian professors, for years. Perhaps the mindset has been embraced because we (Christian professors) are told that non-profit educational institutions are supposed to be politically neutral lest they lose their tax-exempt status, so instead of having the courage of conviction to ignore the threat of tax-exemption loss (as professors do in liberal universities) and thereby play the same game that many secular universities play, we resort to the “teach-how-to-think-not-what-to-think” mindset, hoping that we’ll be viewed as taking the high ground and obeying the Johnson Amendment, which is the tax-code provision prohibiting one-sided political advocacy in non-profits.
My suspicion, however, is that many Christian professors have embraced the mindset out of fear of taking a stand or out of intellectual laziness. That is, even at some supposedly Christian universities, a professor who takes a stand for Christian orthodoxy may find himself or herself marginalized, and the reality is that it sometimes take a lot of intellectual work to challenge the culturally influenced presuppositions that students bring to the classroom. Perhaps the mindset makes us feel better for not having the wherewithal to fight back in the same way that liberal institutions fight. And we justify the mindset by saying that if we can just give students the right tools—teach them HOW to think—then they will reject secular progressivism anyway, since they’ve learned HOW to think and will therefore see that secular progressivism is bad. I am not saying that my argument here applies to every Christian professor, but I suspect some or all of it applies to many.
One problem with the “teach-how-to-think-not-what-to-think” mindset is that liberal professors, in fact, do NOT play by the same rules. They teach students WHAT to think and promote a Leftist political ideology every day, all over the country. Thus, Christian professors give up a lot of ground with this mindset.
And lest we are tempted to think that the secular agenda in higher education is overstated, consider a study by Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University. In 2007, Gross and Simmons presented their findings from a study that involved 1,471 American college and university professors who represented 927 institutions. Gross and Simmons found that 21.8 percent of conservative professors were “ardent advocates” of keeping political opinions out of teaching, whereas only 5.1 percent of liberals ardently advocated neutrality in the classroom (read more). The difference between 21.8 percent and 5.1 percent might not seem significant until one stops to think about how secular institutions vastly outnumber faith-based institutions. A 15-percent difference in this area is actually quite significant—and it helps explain how our culture becomes more liberalized every day.
A bigger problem with the “teach-how-to-think-not-what-to-think” mindset, however, is that it’s just plain foolish. Yes, we ARE supposed to teach students how to think. Moreover, there are plenty of issues that are legitimately debatable and for which Christian professors should not take sides. But to avoid on principle teaching students WHAT to think at all times is akin to allowing a youth-league baseball player to bat cross-handed without ever correcting him. He might get through the game or even the season, but he’ll never be as productive as he could be—and one day he’ll encounter the 90 mph fastball and simply be unable to compete.
Some ideas are right and some are wrong. Period. When controversial issues arise in the classroom, it is indeed the professor’s job to explore all sides of a position. Moreover, professors should not penalize students for disagreeing with them. In my own classroom, I try to address all sides of the controversial issues, and I do not berate, belittle, or penalize a student for having a position that is different than my own. By teaching in such a way, I am in fact showing a regard for academic freedom.
When addressing certain issues, however, if I simply put all of the information in front of students and then tell them to “choose,” then I have done little better than the liberal professor who forces students to see things his or her way—and in some instances, I have merely equipped students to be dangerous adults.
The second implication of Stone’s mostly good speech and very bad response to the audience member is that academic freedom cannot exist within the framework of a confessional university. This implication is almost painfully ironic. Stone does not see that his thinking inevitably leads to the political correctness, cultural chaos, and threats to free speech that he so admirably opposes. If there is no understood Truth that serves as the parameter for academic freedom, then anything that flawed humanity deems as legitimate “scholarship” becomes legitimate. And the problems with this reality are twofold: (1) some things simply are not legitimate and (2) too many competing “legitimacies” inevitably lead to chaos and confusion. Today, for instance, Target cannot figure out one of the simplest things imaginable—how to label bathrooms—and some people can’t understand why others believe mutilating a baby is morally reprehensible.
With all due respect to Dr. Stone—and I do value much of what he says—I submit that true academic freedom cannot exist WITHOUT certain parameters—parameters that are not listed in his five acceptable restrictions to free expression but are instead found in the best-selling book of all time. They are parameters that attest to the common sense of common sense.
Confessional statements do not restrict academic freedom. They help make it meaningful.
And this issue underscores why, as research continues to demonstrate, young people who are raised in the Church and attend Bible-based institutions such as Oklahoma Wesleyan University stay in the Church—and why young people who attend secular institutions leave the Church. In droves.