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Academic And Religious Freedom

Jan. 18, 2005

There's a saying in the South: "Where three Baptists are gathered, you'll find four opinions."

Baptists say it jokingly about themselves, a recognition of their fiercely held right to independent thought and dogged avoidance of anything that even hints at confessionalism. They fly high their banners of "priesthood of the believer" and "soul competency" -- the closest thing to creedal belief to be found in the denomination.

Academics rank right up there with Baptists as those who safeguard their right to independent thought -- in what they teach and in what they research -- and likewise fly high their banner of "academic freedom."

It's not surprising then, that faculty and administrators at Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university, compose a group collectively that is determined not to let any one of its members tell another what to do or how to do it -- at least not without a lot of debate, dialogue and discussion.

It's not what Baptists do.

It's not what scholars do.

And it sure isn't what Baptist scholars do.

Is it possible for academic and religious freedom to coexist at Baylor? That's been the topic of ongoing debate this winter as the University continues to deal with hard questions about denominational and institutional identity. In recent months, this philosophical clash has emerged on several different fronts: at faculty forums initiated by the administration; at a series of meetings sponsored by Baylor's chapter of American Association of University Professors (AAUP); and on Web sites.

If a single event could crystallize the issues involved, it would be the debate on campus last fall between Provost David Lyle Jeffrey and Baylor Law School Professor William Underwood sponsored by the Baylor AAUP chapter. Held Oct. 27 in Bennett Auditorium before a full house that included Baylor President Robert B. Sloan Jr. and President Emeritus Herbert H. Reynolds, it was a scene that easily could have lent itself to high drama. Two 6-foot-plus men with graying or silvered hair in dark suits stood at either side of the stage. Jeffrey cautioned against individualism over and beyond community consensus; Underwood gave examples of the danger of subjugating individual rights. Jeffrey raised the specter of "radical subjectivity" while Underwood outlined the evils of "autocratic dictates." At the end of the two-hour event, the two men shook hands and each walked to his individual -- and still quite separated -- group of supporters. Was any progress made in finding common ground?

"I think in some ways, the event was staged in such a way to make it possible for people to be confirmed in their own opinion that they had coming in the door, and that's probably not entirely desirable," Jeffrey says. "On the other hand, the very fact of the conversation happening was taken by many to be a good sign, a sign that it's possible to have these conversations, and I think that's valuable."

Underwood says it was a step in the right direction. "I hoped it would show people that it's OK to stand up and disagree, and that we can disagree with one another and still be civil to one another. I think, to some degree, it did accomplish that."

Genesis of debate

Among the issues prompting Underwood to propose the public debate were two actions taken by the provost this past spring. These actions included a proposed addendum to the University's official academic freedom policy initiated by the provost's office and a speech delivered by Jeffrey at Wheaton College's Conference on Scripture and the Disciplines on May 24.

Both the proposed addendum and the speech were interpreted by Underwood and others on campus as a call for subjugation of individual and religious freedoms to communal interests.

The proposed revision to the official academic freedom statement, which affirms the AAUP's standard, was sent to Baylor's Faculty Senate executive committee May 4 of last year. It included statements that research and/or teaching that advocated "practices that are inconsistent with Baptist faith or practice" would not be supported by the University and must be avoided. It further stated the provost would develop a process to determine which research projects would be approved. The Senate rejected the amendment 31-0 (one abstention), and Jeffrey withdrew it from consideration.

"There are lots of problems with that being the appropriate line," Underwood says of the proposed language. "That, in essence, results in stagnation of the Baptist faith. You can't reconsider or re-examine ideas that come to be accepted among Baptists under that kind of policy."

Also troubling to Underwood was the draft's inference that there would be a final arbiter of what was acceptable research and teaching, that "there was one person out there who took it upon himself to decide ... and that is very un-Baptist," he said in the debate.

Referencing the need for the addendum in the first place, Underwood asked Jeffrey in the debate, "Where's the anarchy?" Or, to put it another way, why fix what isn't broken?

"Our basic policy is not broken," Jeffrey said in a later interview. "The issue is that relationships between the institution as a community and individuals seeking their own individual freedoms within the community are more strained than they used to be. The climate in America is changing. People are pushing the envelope with each other harder than they used to. So the consensus within this community concerning what is within the sense of Baylor's shared identity, and what's maybe outside it, is not as easy to come by as once it was. There's more divergence."

Jeffrey adds that he would fear an autocratic process as much as anyone. "I would want there to be what I would call a community conversation about these matters in which people would participate in many levels," he says. "At the end of the day, somebody has to take responsibility for, as it were, integrating, recording and announcing whatever that decision is going to be."

Barry Hankins, associate professor of history and church-state studies, agrees that Baylor now must contend with a different environment -- internally and externally -- than it once experienced. "For most of Baylor's history it existed in a culture that was so supportive of a Baptist, Christian way of doing things," Hankins says. "Most people who applied at Baylor for faculty positions had grown up in the South, they'd grown up Baptist, they'd probably gone to Baylor. It was kind of a self-perpetuating quality to Baylor's Christian identity in a culture that was very hospitable and even reinforcing. Those days are gone."

President Sloan refers to what he calls the "sea change" in American society and culture in the last few decades: "The central question for Baylor, whether we're talking about academic freedom or the controversy right now over 2012 and me, is what is the character and shape of Baylor? Who are we? Are we a Christian institution or not?"

Sloan says that question is in one sense the elephant in the room that some do not want to talk about. "Since the charter change particularly, the Council of 150, the Self-Study of 1994-96 and Baylor 2012, these issues have come sharply into the foreground and they are there, not only for those reasons, but also because of the large cultural shifts that we have experienced in our society. Christianity has gone from being a dominant religious and social force in our culture to being, at time, almost marginalized."

The 701 addendum

Jeffrey cites two reasons he began the process of amending the academic freedom policy (BUPP 701). One deals with the challenges involved in meeting accrediting agencies' criteria and the other with the allocation of Baylor resources.

In socially sensitive academic disciplines such as psychology, social work and law, there is increasing pressure on religious higher education institutions to be more inclusive in hiring and enrollment policies. Currently, agencies for psychology and social work have, or are lobbying to have, more definitive language adopted in their policies regarding those who practice alternative lifestyles.

As chief academic officer, Jeffrey also fields calls from parents concerned about controversial topics being taught to their children in Baylor's classrooms. He believes the University needs a clearer statement of disclosure for students and parents about subject matter that will be presented in these particular fields. "I was working vigorously to protect the academic freedom of the professors involved and their work ... to thoughtfully defend the appropriateness to Christians of studying subjects that are not always savory," he says.

What prompted heightened consideration of these matters for Jeffrey was a meeting held early last year in Washington, D.C. Representatives of Baylor and several other religious higher education institutions met with a senior member of President George W. Bush's administration to talk about the scope of authority of accrediting agencies, which report to the U.S. Department of Education. The meeting was informational only and resulted in no definitive action.

That meeting also had no legal relevance, Underwood says. "There was no sort of change in the law that resulted from that, or that was even initiated as a result of that process," he says.

After the Faculty Senate rejected the proposed addendum on academic freedom, Jeffrey appointed an ad hoc committee composed of professors and administrators from those academic disciplines under pressure from their accrediting agencies. That committee's report is expected at the end of this academic year.

The other reason the provost cites for initiating the addendum addresses allocation of University resources. "Baylor as a community needs to also decide how it apportions its resources," Jeffrey says. Academic freedom assures faculty the right to research, teach and publish on any topic that is consistent with one's academic field, but there are "projects into which one could be involved which might possibly fall outside what would be acceptable norms," he says, "or which simply price themselves out of mission-related priorities."

The current process for determining these matters is fairly informal, he says. "I would like to see the faculty just simply work through those questions and see if they can help us arrive at something that would give us all assurance that we would have a consultation that would really take account of the institution's public commitment to be a certain kind of institution," he says.

The mission statement

Jeffrey also expressed concern in the debate and at other times about the adequacy of Baylor's current mission statement to withstand religious exemption challenges. He said in the Wheaton speech he believed religious institutions "must be able to point to a coherent doctrinal base" and should "chart and uphold a demonstrably distinctive mission."

In comparing Baylor's mission statement with those of other religious -- although not Baptist -- universities, Jeffrey says he believes there is a need at Baylor for more reasoned reflection on the question of institutional identity and its application to religious exemption.

Legally, however, Underwood is adamant that there is nothing on the horizon that would necessitate a more clearly defined religious statement about Baylor's identity.

"Absolutely not. Absolutely not,"repeats Underwood, who has twice with Baylor attorney Charles Beckenhauer successfully defended the University in religious exemption suits. In fact, every Baptist institution that has had its religious exemption challenged legally has prevailed, he says. "The United States Supreme Court has made very clear that we cannot distinguish among religions. Doing so would be the clearest violation of the First Amendment imaginable."

Sloan says he believes Baylor's mission statement and the Baylor 2012 document are distinctively Christian. He cautions, though, that the University must be willing to self-correct. "We have to preserve Baylor's historic identity, its history, its traditions, its values, its character and at the same time adapt to a modern, ever-changing scene and that requires ongoing work," he says. "We have to be prepared to change."

Underwood values the University's mission statement, saying that it is broadly enough stated to provide flexibility. "You want flexibility because you want to be able to respond to change in what is undeniably a fast-moving world. We have a tremendous advantage over state schools in talking about those controversial issues because we can examine them from an overtly Christian perspective, something that can't happen at the University of Texas."

Furthermore, Underwood believes Baylor has an advantage over other religious universities such as Notre Dame, Pepperdine and Brigham Young. "The Baptist faith historically is more open to freedom of conscience and freedom of thought than other faiths. For that reason, I think, Baylor can be the most stimulating intellectual environment of any of the Christian schools, as long as we're not afraid of the discussion and the debate. Some would prefer for Baylor to be less Baptist and more like some non-Baptist Christian universities. I think this would be a serious mistake."

Individual or community?

Jeffrey's call for consensus within community sounded a battle cry along religious lines for others at Baylor -- many of whom are proudly Baptist and proudly anti-creedal. The provost outlined in his Wheaton speech a creeping biblical illiteracy in society and questioned whether there are "biblical resources for dealing with general problems of the academic community, in particular, current debates over the meaning and application of the principle of academic freedom."

He took issue with the individualistic, as opposed to communal, nature of such freedom. "The freedom sought [for example, in the AAUP stance] is a radically individualistic and subjective order of freedom," he said in the speech. "To it, the idea of communal freedom is seen as a threat, perhaps because it suggests the possibility of reciprocal accountability."

Further, Jeffrey eschewed the stance of those who argue Baptist freedom means that, as a Baptist, one can interpret the Bible as one chooses. "As a radical extension of the doctrines of 'soul competency' and 'priesthood of the believer' -- not of 'the believers' -- it is a full logical equivalent of the postmodernist stance in literary and legal theory." He further asserted that such subjectivism could lead to "neglect of the Bible altogether."

For Underwood, the son of a Baptist preacher, the comments raised red flags. "He was arguing for a community freedom that would trump the individual freedom," Underwood says, "and that, to me, is contrary to the Baptist faith I've known for 48 years."

And what is the difference? "The right of the individual to read the Scriptures and to be led by the Holy Spirit and to come to their own conclusions as to what the Scripture means," Underwood says. "Some people describe it as 'priesthood of the believer,' and that's part of it. But I tend to think of it more as individual freedom of conscience [which is] one of the foundations of the Baptist faith. To me, that's what we Texas Baptists have fought for against Southern Baptist Convention politicians for decades, and it's something very important."

In correspondence Jeffrey sent to Underwood after the debate, the provost further addressed this issue: "My concern is not with the original intent of the doctrine of 'soul competency,'" Jeffrey wrote, "but with the way in which it can too easily be expressed as an assertion of 'sole' competency. I am not sure that the latter is, convincingly, a Christian idea."

Denominational wars

Hankins sympathizes with longtime faculty members at Baylor who have been caught in denominational wars of the past. "The attacks against Baylor historically have almost always come from the right, from what many would call fundamentalist Baptists, so it's understandable now that faculty who have spent their entire careers fending off those attacks would see this new attempt to make Baylor more Christian as one more attack to be resisted."

But Hankins doesn't believe that's the issue currently. "I think it's a totally different thing. The whole culture has changed in the South, the culture of higher education has changed now that we're in a sort of postmodern academic world."

The denominational wars within the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and '90s -- in which moderates left the SBC over conflicts with conservative fundamentalists -- impacted Baptists of all stripes, Sloan says, adding that he could see where some would have "an instinctive reaction against anything that might appear to them to be constraint." Nonetheless, he adds, "All of us have to realize that we have to take an accurate reading of our own culture, of our own setting and not simply live out of the wars of the past. You have to realize that limitations upon our freedoms as Christians and as academics do not just come from any one side of the cultural, religious or political spectrum," he says.

William Brackney, professor of religion at Baylor and a noted Baptist historian and author, questioned Jeffrey's comments in the Wheaton speech about religious freedom as it pertains to the tradition of the Free Church, of which Baptists belong.

"The glory of the Free Church, and this is something the provost missed grievously in his Wheaton address, it's not just some kind of what he called 'anarchic individualism,'" Brackney says. "The other side of the Free Church tradition is our desire to be cooperative, our desire to be associational. We know that the extreme of our tradition is obscurantism and isolationism, so to put a check on that, we reach out and we find other people of like faith and order, and we voluntarily associate with them."

"Voluntarily" is the key word, he notes. "If you start curtailing a true Baptist's sense of freedom, you're violating his or her sense of well-being. I want to hear about an uplifting sense of values that I can voluntarily latch onto; I don't want to be pulled along by a hook. It's just in the psyche of being Baptist."

Baylor always has had an orthodox Christian tradition believing in a trinitarian God, an incarnation, the necessity of a personal relationship and commitment to faith and to God through Christ, Hankins says. "That's always been a given at Baylor, and again, now, I think it's something that has to be defined because you now have so many voices saying being a Christian is what someone decides it is," he says. "That's not been Baylor's historic way."

Sloan asks, "Why does it appear so odd that a university should affirm and attempt to retain and enrich its character as a Christian institution tied to rather broad historic Christian convictions? That's not new at Baylor. Why should that elicit such a hue and cry, such a fear of fundamentalism, or anxiety on the part of some? It says more to me about changes in our culture than about changes at Baylor."

Baylor 2012 umbrella

Much of the give-and-take on campus centers on how the issues of academic freedom and religious freedom can peacefully coexist under the umbrella of Baylor 2012, the University's 10-year Vision that reaffirms Baylor's religious heritage while announcing its aspirations to become a nationally recognized research institution.

Brackney came to Baylor from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, to be head of the Department of Religion in 2000. He came with high hopes about the potential of 2012 and saw it as an opportunity to be part of building something unique. "Baylor was seeking to have an international, certainly a national, Baptist identity about itself, and it was no longer going to be confined to a Texas Baptist constituency," he says. "Baptists don't yet have a paradigm of what a church-related university ought to look like, so maybe Baylor could become that paradigm."

The duality of purpose stated in Baylor 2012 has been achieved by very few, if any, institutions of higher education. Others have tried and found it necessary to forgo either denominational affiliation or academic aspirations. Historically, the examples include Princeton, Vanderbilt, Emory and Syracuse -- all of which largely abandoned their religious roots as they became prestigious research-oriented institutions. An exception, and one farther down the path than Baylor, is Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., which is religiously affiliated with the Church of Christ. Pepperdine broke into U.S. News & World Report's top 50 standings in fall 2000. It has hovered near there since and tied for 52nd in the most recent ranking.

Pepperdine Provost Darryl Tippens, however, says his university is a long way from having made it. "In some quarters of our organization, we evolved away from our mission over a period of decades and it will take decades for us to get back to where we should be or want to be," he says. "And so, we need to be patient with one another as we make these changes. I see it as evolutionary, not revolutionary."

Pepperdine's faculty and administration rewrote the university's mission statement, which was adopted in March 1999. Tippens, who became provost in January 2001, says they "apparently got a fairly widespread buy-in" to the new statement. "It was not unanimous, and it's not unanimous to this day." Regardless, he says, the religious character of the new mission statement was "much more and decidedly explicit. We're not going to be prescriptive about this, we don't have a formula, but we are saying that faith is a live issue and we want the faculty to engage us in a continuing dialogue about it."

Pepperdine also has wrestled to a certain extent with issues of academic freedom within a religious institution, he says, adding that academic freedom was never designed to be absolute. "Freedom of inquiry entails the concomitant expectations of civic duty and care for the community. We're not just a collection of independent contractors, private researchers."

Tippens says Pepperdine makes an important distinction between "our expectations that our faculty be people of faith and their freedom to engage in inquiry into all kinds of areas that may contain hot-button issues. We try to find faculty who are sincere believers, and then it's a matter of trust, that they will handle these sensitive areas in a responsible and fair way."

The idea that academic freedom is threatened at Baylor is something that Hankins just doesn't see. "I am quite sure I am more free at Baylor than I would be at a secular school. It would be very difficult, especially pre-tenure, to be open about one's attempt to integrate evangelical Christianity with academic scholarship at a state university," he says.

Since Jeffrey withdrew the proposed addendum in May, an ad hoc committee he assigned and the Faculty Senate's standing Faculty Committee on Academic Freedom, Responsibility and Environment have met separately, together and with the provost. Ann McGlashan, associate professor of German and chair of that Senate committee, reported at a campus AAUP meeting Nov. 16 that her committee is "cautiously optimistic that our policy on academic freedom as it stands now is sufficient to insulate us. Our academic freedom policy is the bedrock of the institution ... and we feel like we have our provost's backing on this that it will not be changed without much discussion."

National spotlight

If nothing else, these issues and the public debate of them have resulted in more dialogue. Underwood says he meets with people on both sides of the issues for lunch up to four times a week. Jeffrey, too, says he sees more people talking to one another, and he's grateful for that.

"One of the good things to come out of this debate is the recognition on the parts of lots of faculty that they're going to have to take time out of their own little silos, their own research, their own teaching, to actually reach out to people they don't know and start to have conversations that will enable a community to grow," Jeffrey says. "I think that is happening, and I'm delighted by it."

What matters now, Hankins says, is whether people can respectfully examine the serious question of what academic freedom is going to be at Baylor. "The extent to which we can sit down and talk about these things -- whether academic freedom is a communal sort of value or an individual sort of value -- and acknowledge that this is really a fundamental question," he says, will determine how Baylor moves ahead, or doesn't. "It is a fundamental question for all academic institutions, but it is particularly important at a university that claims some sort of coherent worldview."

President Sloan says he regrets the turmoil of the past two years, but he also thinks it has value. "The value is that it forces Baylor people --- alumni, faculty, students, staff, prospective students, the larger higher education world -- to ask the vital question: Can a university conceived as a Christian institution persevere and even make significant contributions to our society? Can a Christian institution offer something distinctive? Shouldn't Christians care about that?" Sloan asks. "I think they should. I think they do."

And as Tippens says, many people are watching the Baylor story unfold. "I think your experiment is not just for you; it's for the whole world really. We need institutions like Baylor in the mix. We need these shining lights that show us how to build a great faith-based university."

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