Purging Christian Higher Education

Rooting out political heretics is a practice we now associate with liberal secular universities, despite pretenses of "academic freedom" and claims to protect it with the lifelong employment guarantee known as "tenure."

But today, the practice appears just as likely at conservative Christian institutions.  In fact, we may now be seeing a nationwide purge of the ideologically retrograde from Evangelical colleges, universities, and seminaries, as they succumb to pressure to jettison Christian principles and substitute political ideology.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) just fired four of its most senior faculty members, all full professors.  Some have active publication records that put them at the forefront of their profession, elevated their institution's profile, and made them respected public voices for the seminary's professed values.  The pretext was budget cuts, but no reputable institution dismisses its most eminent faculty in their prime to save money.  All had resisted the radicalization being encouraged by the administration, and they were the first to go not despite their experience and leadership, but because of it.

SBTS is not alone.  In November, Robert Lopez was fired from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS).  Lopez is a leading voice in controversies over sexual politics, where he has questioned the homosexualist political agenda.  He has also criticized the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)'s political leadership, which has close ties to both seminaries.  In recent months, SWBTS has also seen mass firings of senior faculty (42 by one count, mostly full professors, including at least one endowed chair), likewise for political reasons disguised implausibly using "budget shortfalls."

More examples could be cited, but doing so would cause the ejected professors serious legal and financial problems, because they were terminated using innovative schemes to hide these obviously unethical actions from public view.

In fact, it is difficult to know how many professors have been purged because, as always, unscrupulous administrations seek to hide actions they know to be indefensible.  The SBTS four were all offered "non-disclosure agreements": payments in return for their silence.  Strikingly, Lopez was terminated shortly after he introduced a resolution at the SBC declaring such agreements antithetical to academic integrity.

The agreements are indeed, ipso facto, as scandalous as the firings and prima facie proof that the administration has things to hide.  To understand why, one must realize that colleges and universities can maintain integrity only by respecting the principle of academic freedom.  Firing professors for political heterodoxy defeats the purpose of higher education, which must be dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of truth.  If you disagree with a scholar's writings, you challenge them in peer review or by writing a rejoinder, marshaling logic and citing evidence.  This is the academic process, to which these institutions are dedicated, or else they are fraudulent.  Subverting it by summarily dismissing reputable faculty is an admission of intellectual weakness, dishonesty, cowardice, or worse, and it will quickly compromise an institution's reputation.

Institutions receiving state funding generally must respect academic freedom and protect it with tenure.  They may even be bound by the First Amendment.  Privately funded Christian institutions generally are not held to be thus bound by law and often have no tenure.  But they usually profess to honor the principle nevertheless, because their reputations (and accreditation) depend on it.  Oversight bodies such as faculty senates, boards of trustees, and accreditors must ensure that the administrations are not compromised by politicization.  An institution known to impose ideology on its professors will also find that students, parents, faculty, donors, and others will start looking elsewhere.  This is why transparency is critical to keeping private institutions honest and why disreputable ones crave secrecy.

Incidentally, academic freedom does not prevent religious institutions from maintaining doctrinal integrity.  Legitimate methods exist to discipline faculty who deviate from valid commitments to doctrinal orthodoxy, and such discipline does not violate academic freedom.  Secrecy is not needed when the institution acts out of principle — only to hide actions of which it is ashamed.

This is the role of non-disclosure agreements: to stop the mouths of faculty who call attention to improper dismissal and other unethical practices.  Borrowed from the business world, these agreements are often accepted there as providing for legitimate confidentiality, such as industrial secrets.

In academia, they are inherently un-ethical.  They violate academic freedom in themselves and hide other violations.  They serve to protect the institution not only from legal liability, but, more seriously, from public scrutiny and criticism.  Typically, the professor is fired without warning or notice (often breaking a contract), which immediately cuts him off from not only his livelihood, but also internal grievance procedures.  His salary and benefits are then dangled before him in exchange for renouncing his legal claims, his constitutional rights, and above all his freedom to speak out.  Not only is it extortionate, but it immunizes the administration from accountability, because it opens him, not them, to legal liability for telling the truth about their wrongdoing.  Even oversight bodies with a legitimate interest in knowing, such as accreditors and the institution's own trustees, can be kept in the dark.  By using this method, SBTS and SWBTS are proclaiming to the world that they are substandard institutions, frightened to subject themselves to the ethical norms recognized by reputable institutions. 

If money fails to shut their mouths, Christian institutions have devised even more diabolical weapons against their own faculty.  Employment contracts now contain mandatory arbitration clauses, requiring that "employment disputes" be adjudicated in secret by a private arbitration firm.  Here too, the ejected professor can voice objections only in a secret commercial proceeding consisting not of colleagues but of lawyers, who will ensure that no one else hears the truth, because the procedure is without record, and public disclosure is legally punishable.  In effect, the professor is treated as if he signed an NDA even if he did not.

This subterfuge is breathtakingly cynical for a Christian institution.  Purporting to apply "biblical" principles of "Christian Conciliation" — principally Matthew 18:15–17 and 1 Corinthians 6 — it is really nothing more than secular forced arbitration, sprinkled reassuringly with Bible verses but leaving nothing of what Jesus prescribes. 

In the name of reducing "animosities," lawyers curtail due process protections and basic constitutional freedoms (like speech).  Rules of evidence are explicitly discarded, and arbitrators (enjoying legal immunity) have no specified limits on what they can inflict, including punitive damages and lawyers' fees.  Nothing requires that they follow the Bible or even the law.  The secretive decisions are then enforced by civil courts (flouting Paul's instructions to avoid courts), without challenge or appeal, and parties have no redress.  The larger church community, where Jesus places jurisdiction, is cut out altogether.  In short, the Bible command is appropriated and inverted to serve the very evils it was provided to remedy: to conceal wrongdoing and shield wrongdoers from the moral judgment of the community.

This too was devised for secular business contracts.  Pitting lone employees against organized interests like universities has already provoked sharp criticism.

But the "Christian" version is especially pernicious, not only because it invokes religious faith to disguise commercial gain, but because it exploits goodwill and betrays good faith by deceiving Christians with the illusion that they are being relieved of their own "animosity," when they are really being relieved of their access to public justice and their constitutional rights.  It also grants profit-making ventures a captive market on any arbitration labeled "Christian" and an incentive to collude with any self-styled Christian employers who support the monopoly by writing forced arbitration clauses into their employment contracts.  Ironically, this even blocks employees from invoking Matthew 18 as written or even calling attention to its subversion.  The aim is not reconciling people who disagree, but eliminating them.

This makes it the perfect tool for airbrushing professors who resist liberalization out of the picture.  If a professor speaks out, a "conciliation" procedure can be launched, and he can be "conciliated" into silence and secretly plundered. 

When one understands how strikingly appropriate is Jesus's own straightforward conflict resolution method for administering educational establishments — because it requires that differences be resolved by exchanging ideas rather than inflicting punishments — one can realize just how devious are the institutions that pervert it.

* * *

The implications of all this extend well beyond Christian academies.  It simultaneously violates both Christian ethics and secular academic ones.  In higher education, Christian institutions are the last redoubt of not only Christian faith itself and the classical liberal arts, but basic academic integrity.  Even open-minded secularists find it difficult to understand why institutions grounded in religious doctrines are the last to become corrupted by politicization.  But it is logical that institutions lacking such a foundation should be more vulnerable to importing substitute creeds in the form of political ideologies.  This is why Christianity is largely responsible for the Western university as we know it.  When they throw in the towel, higher education becomes a seminary of leftist ideology.

* * *

By shrinking from the opportunity to openly engage and challenge ideas in the administration of their own institutions, and instead banishing dissenters under dishonest pretexts, while hiding their mendacity behind a battery of legal fortifications, these institutions are undermining their own reason for existing.  This is the main function of learned institutions after all: to weigh and critique ideas and teach their students and the rest of us how to understand and evaluate them.  But that is precisely where these institutions show themselves inadequate in managing their own affairs.  They are proclaiming to the world that they are too intellectually feeble (and perhaps morally arrogant) to articulate a coherent defense of their own principles and actions.  Who would trust the word, let alone the scholarship, coming from a university that cannot engage with inconvenient ideas?  And who would trust such a college with his education or that of his children?

This in turn raises larger questions.  Christian institutions have already been accused of intellectual cowardice because of their refusal to stand up and be heard on highly salient public issues that most threaten the integrity of higher education today, and that directly impinge on their Christian identity — namely, today's radical sexual ideology.  It is no accident that most of these firings concern faculty who stand their ground on Christian sexual morality and take a public position on the current controversies.  Having first abdicated their own responsibility, the institutions must then purge the faculty who demonstrate the embarrassing integrity to insist on doing their job.

All this casts into serious doubt on the claim of such institutions to be either Christian or academic at all and instead makes them appear as little more than employment schemes for diffident administrators and pliable faculty — or as one critic puts it, hedge funds "with classrooms attached."

Stephen Baskerville, Ph.D., has over 30 years' experience teaching in universities in the United States and Europe, and he writes extensively about the reform of higher education.  Last July he was dismissed as professor of government after twelve years at Patrick Henry College.

If you experience technical problems, please write to helpdesk@americanthinker.com