Science, Faith, and Academic Freedom: Erskine College Swats a Gadfly

Peter Wood

In what ways should the doctrine of academic freedom apply to colleges that have an explicitly creedal mission? It is an old question. The founders of the American Association of University Professors answered it concisely in their founding statement, the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure:

If a church or religious denomination establishes a college to be governed by a board of trustees, with the express understanding that the college will be used as an instrument of propaganda in the interests of the religious faith professed by the church or denomination creating it, the trustees have a right to demand that everything be subordinated to that end.

In effect, the AAUP at its beginning drew a sharp line between religious colleges and secular ones and focused on academic freedom as exclusively an issue at secular institutions.

The AAUP softened this stance in its 1940 in its revised “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” There it added:

Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institutions should be clearly stated in writing at the time of appointment.

This surely implies that by 1940 the AAUP had changed its mind: religious colleges can have “academic freedom” of some sort, as long as they are explicit about the areas excluded from the doctrine.

The AAUP’s 1940 statement, however, was purposely vague. Far from settling the question of how religious colleges can or should protect academic freedom, it set up an ambiguity that has repeatedly led to confrontations. Another such case has just come to light. The AAUP has written a letter to Erskine College on behalf of a faculty member who was apparently fired for his public repudiation of the tenets of faith that the college upholds.\

What Happened at Erskine

As typically happens with cases such as this, the facts are shrouded in non-disclosure, elliptical statements, exaggerations, and sometimes deliberate distortion. Erskine College isn’t saying that it fired the professor for his rejection of its faith; and the AAUP so far is sticking to its usual approach of complaining about procedural irregularities. But the press and some bloggers are confident that they have the real story. And they may be right. The facts as they appear in that light are:

William Crenshaw was a tenured English professor who was first suspended on August 12 and then fired on September 7 after teaching at the college for 35 years. The only reason that is publicly available comes from an email that the Erskine College president sent to Crenshaw on August 23 saying that, “The College cannot permit you to hold your position on an active basis and while doing so [permit you to] encourage people to quit donating to Erskine and to quit sending their kids to Erskine.”

Behind this, however, lie Crenshaw’s voluble attacks on the college’s religious positions. In the most widely quoted of Crenshaw’s dissents, he wrote on a Facebook page:

Science is the litmus test on the validity of the educational enterprise. If a school teaches real science, it’s a pretty safe bet that all other departments are sound. If it teaches bogus science, everything else is suspect.... I want a real college, not one that rejects facts, knowledge, and understanding because they conflict with a narrow religious belief. Any college that lets theology trump fact is not a college; it is an institution of indoctrination. It teaches lies. Colleges do not teach lies. Period.

This has led to bloggers, such as David Drumm, headlining his account of the incident, “Erskine College Professor Fired for Supporting Science.”

That pretty clearly falls into the category of distortion. Erskine may have fired Crenshaw for rejecting the college’s religious positions, but that surely isn’t the same as firing him for “supporting science.” It is Crenshaw, not Erskine College, who seems to think that religious faith and scientific inquiry are incompatible.

The story jumped to a higher level of visibility this week when Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed reported on the AAUP’s involvement.

The Gadfly

Erskine, a small South Carolina college, is defined by its sectarian identity. Founded by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the college’s mission puts specific emphasis on “a Christ-centered learning environment” and “biblical truth.” The college has fewer than fifty faculty members, so it seems likely that Crenshaw’s dissenting voice was conspicuous within the community.

Crenshaw styled himself a gadfly, teaching courses such as “How to Become a Dangerous Person,” challenging students with creationist views to provide proofs for their beliefs, and insisting on the priority of scientific evidence over biblical doctrine.

One Inside Higher Ed article from last year quotes an Erskine student who called Crenshaw “the most extreme example” of faculty members who “openly oppose or evade the integration of Christian faith with learning.” According to the most recent IHE piece, bloggers from Erskine’s denomination took umbrage at some of Crenshaw’s online statements about science, including the one quoted above.

“Facts, knowledge, and understanding” are indeed important in higher education’s lessons on pursuing the truth. But they need not be diametrically opposed to religion. (Full disclosures: We are both members of a Presbyterian church, though not Erskine’s denomination.) Faith and science can indeed clash, but they don’t have to and many of such supposed conflicts can be resolved without injury to either faith or reason.

Faith and Freedom

Erskine is adamant that its professors be Christians and that they believe that the Bible does not err. The Employee Resource Handbook states, “Erskine employs as new faculty members only Christians who have consented in writing to the Philosophy of Christian Higher Education statement, including its definition of an evangelical Christian, and the appropriate College or Seminary Mission Statement.” That definition includes the belief that “The Bible alone, being God-breathed, is the Word of God, infallible in all that it teaches, and inerrant in the original manuscripts.” Crenshaw’s accusation of “bogus science” and “narrow religious belief” seem to put him against the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

This version of Erskine’s Employee Resource Handbook was posted in May 2011. Two things to note: it refers to its statement of faith applying to “new faculty members;” and it is not clear what sort of arrangement was in place when Crenshaw was hired and received tenure. Presumably Erskine College has weighed such considerations and in light of them it may have decided to set aside the issue of Crenshaw’s personal non-conformity with the college’s current creedal views. Thus the focus of the dispute has become Crenshaw’s alleged “harm” to the college, not his beliefs.

Harm?

The AAUP letter (printed here at a blog run by a member of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church) quotes from an apparently out-of-date handbook that states that a tenured faculty member may be suspended “only if immediate harm to himself or others is threatened by his continuance.”  This “harm” principle does not appear in the May 2011 Employee Resource Handbook. While the AAUP argues that there was no threat of immediate harm by Crenshaw’s presence on the faculty, it quotes a letter from Erskine College president David Norman to Crenshaw explaining:

Immediate harm to yourself or others would be threatened by your continuance. The reasons for this were set out in my letter to you dated August 12, 2011. There is one reason in particular that I would like to call to your attention. The College cannot permit you to hold your position on an active basis and while doing so [permit you to] encourage people to quit donating to Erskine and to quit sending their kids to Erskine.

Encouraging people not to donate to or enroll at Erskine certainly counts as “harm” to a college.  Whether this is the kind of “harm” originally contemplated in the now obsolete handbook is a rather lawyerly question. The AAUP says no; Erskine College says (via a spokesman to Inside Higher Ed) that there are harms beyond the merely physical that warrant administrative intervention.

The August 12 letter to Crenshaw from President Norman has not been made public, but if Crenshaw was indeed turning people away from the college, that might be a legitimate ground for firing him. Crenshaw’s hostility to Christianity (or at least Erskine College’s version of Christianity) thus comes back into the picture not as the cause of his firing but as his motivation for acting against the college’s institutional interests.

A college founded to educate in “an atmosphere in which Christianity undergirds the freedom of inquiry” might find itself having to accommodate anti-Christian views up to a point, but if those views lead someone to seek actively to undermine the college’s mission, what then?

Our Assessment

The facts in this case remain murky and it is hard to know whether Crenshaw has a legitimate grievance or Erskine College acted prudently. But a few things do seem clear.

Erskine has an explicitly creedal mission. It doesn’t attempt to hide the theological standards it requires of its community members: “The Board of Trustees, through the Administration, should seek faculty members having professional competence, moral sensitivity and genuine Christian commitment.” Erskine also specifies that “In order for the goals and purposes of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Christian higher education to be realized, Erskine College, through its Board of Trustees, administration and faculty, must be in harmony with the principles and goals of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church” (from the College Mission and Philosophy).

As a private sectarian college, Erskine would be, in principle, within its rights to dismiss a professor who violated that understanding and contradicted the college’s mission to educate students from a Christian perspective. That principle, however, may have been poorly stated or left unsaid at times during Crenshaw’s 35 years on the faculty. A college that upholds a creedal identity cannot in fairness enforce it on its faculty opportunistically.

Critics of Erskine’s decision have portrayed Crenshaw as a martyr, a defender of science (as an English professor), a dissenter who was brave enough to ask tough questions. They depict the motive for his dismissal as unwillingness to hear criticism and closed-minded dogmatism. At his blog College Freedom, John K. Wilson refers to the affair in a post titled, “Another Victim of Repression at a Conservative College”:

Yesterday, Erskine College fired William Crenshaw for the thoughtcrime of questioning right-wing dogma and suggesting that science should be taught. Once again, more proof that the worst repression in American higher education comes from conservative religious colleges that fire liberal (or in this case pro-science) professors. Unfortunately, many conservatives who imagine only right-wingers are ever fired will ignore it or defend violations of academic freedom when the Bible is being held up to justify it. I'd love to hear about a similar example of a conservative professor being fired under the same circumstances.

From what we know, Wilson’s characterization of what happened at Erskine is off the mark. He is vilifying Erskine simply for offering faith-based education. This is not a case of a conservative college repressing a pro-science professor. It is a Christian college attempting to adhere to its own clear values as it struggles with the case of a professor who plainly rejects those values—and apparently carries his dissent to the point of dissuading potential applicants and donors.

Secularist Illusions

The AAUP’s various statements on academic freedom seem pertinent but not dispositive in a case like this. Sectarian colleges have been a robust and vital presence in American higher education for over three centuries. We should be able to conceive of ideals of academic freedom that can thrive in the setting of creedal communities. If not, the doctrine of academic freedom itself is exposed as a conceit too weak to match the actual circumstances of higher learning. Most if not all creed-based colleges do have a stake in academic freedom: they seek students who have active minds and they welcome intellectual inquiry. The harsh antipathy between faith and science conjured in some of Professor Crenshaw’s statements is mostly if not entirely a secularist illusion. Those who promote this illusion have a creed of their own, though they bridle at hearing it called that.

Given the limited amount of information we have on this case, the National Association of Scholars isn’t rushing to take a position either in defense of Professor Crenshaw or in support of Erskine College. In rough outline, it looks as though both might be at fault: Crenshaw for his destructive antagonism towards the college, and Erskine for its feckless handling of a long-time dissenter in its midst.

That said, we do think it’s important that sectarian colleges be accorded the intellectual scope to pursue their missions as they see fit; and that the doctrine of academic freedom be conceived as sufficiently capacious to allow room for minds that are open to religious truth.


Image: Public Domain

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