Interview: William Ringenberg on Christian Colleges and Academic Freedom

BY JOHN K. WILSON

William Ringenberg is a Professor of History at Taylor University and the author of the new book, The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom: Truth-Seeking in Community (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). AcademeBlog co-editor John K. Wilson interviewed Ringenberg via email about his new book.

John K. Wilson: You seem to agree with Michael McConnell’s argument that the AAUP’s 1970 Interpretive Comments are anti-religion by rejecting the idea of special rules for religious colleges. What’s wrong with treating religious and secular colleges equally on academic freedom?

William Ringenberg: The Christian college view is that the AAUP does not always treat the two types of colleges equally, but rather, perhaps without fully realizing it, privileges the one while viewing condescendingly the other.

JW: You write, “The AAUP acknowledges institutional academic freedom but emphasizes individual or professorial freedom. The Christian college community focus is just the opposite: it recognizes professorial freedom but emphasizes institutional academic freedom.” It’s true that institutional autonomy (to limit government control over colleges because it might threaten the academic freedom of individuals within those institutions) is an important concept embraced by the AAUP. But the AAUP rejects the idea that there is an “institutional” academic freedom that trumps the academic freedom of professors. Isn’t the emphasis on “institutional academic freedom” by Christian colleges just an excuse to oppose academic freedom for individual professors?

WR: The Christian college believes that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. All freedom exists in context. All colleges operate in an institutional context. Institutional mission is central or defining, and academic freedom operates within that context. For example some colleges discourage the consideration of the religious domain of the human experience or even broad interdisciplinary considerations in general. For them that is part of their institutional or, in some cases departmental, context.

JW: Do cases like Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College and the firings at Mount St. Mary’s suggest that academic freedom is more endangered at devout religious colleges than at other institutions? And what should be done (externally, by the AAUP, and internally by those on campus) to enhance academic freedom at religious colleges?

WR: Certain types of academic freedom are more at risk in Christian colleges. The latter has more religion-based academic freedom cases while the secular institutions have more political-based cases. Both are vulnerable to due process violations. Christian colleges have their greatest need for the AAUP to serve as a watchdog when their zeal for theological purity leads to due process shortcomings. Also, Christian colleges create problems for themselves when their statements of community standards go beyond central Christian beliefs to embrace secondary convictions. On the Wheaton and Mount St. Mary’s incidents, any college will create problems when they operate from fear more than confidence or when they view people as commodities.

JW: You endorse statements of faith because you argue that “A Christian college is a community. Community (people who have something in common) by definition involves mutual commitment to a common vision or purpose or experience.” But why does a common purpose require having the same beliefs? Why shouldn’t a religious college be defined by the questions that it asks and the topics that it discusses, rather than the answers that it requires?

WR: The Christian college is a voluntary community operating in the spirit of the freedom of assembly provision of the First Amendment. The Christian college dare not try to require any ideas of anyone. But citizens who, on their own, choose to pursue their intellectual quest in the company of those who share a similar worldview should be free to come together to do so. What is difficult for the secular mind to understand is that what for them would be a restriction, for others is a freedom–namely the freedom to pursue their investigations within the context of their chosen worldview. For the latter person, the restrictions on religious expression in a secular university would be limiting. This, of course, is the genius of pluralism and the freedom to choose one’s intellectual milieu. Of course, some Christian colleges can be unduly restrictive beyond the common Christian core, and this is unfortunate.

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