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BU leaders discuss academic freedom

Nov. 16, 2004

By PETER ANZOLLITTO, staff writer

In recent months, Baylor faculty and administration have passionately discussed the balance of a Christian intellectual environment with academic freedom, which outlines the necessity of professors being allowed to teach viable information without hindrance.

"Academic freedom is the right -- indeed the obligation -- of faculty members to read about, research upon and teach concerning the best that is known in the discipline without outside, non-academic interference," Dr. Lynn Tatum, senior lecturer in the Honors College and president of the Baylor chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said defining academic freedom. The AAUP is "the pre-eminent guardian of academic freedom" according to Tatum.The state of Baylor's academic freedom first came under scrutiny last May when Provost David Lyle Jeffrey proposed an addendum to Baylor's current academic freedom policy. The policy is a near copy of the AAUP's, with additional language indicating a more fervent protection of the individual's freedom.

"The Baptist General Convention of Texas is likewise committed to the view that the individual is endowed with the right to decide all issues for himself. Freedom to inquire and freedom to report the conclusions resulting from inquiry constitute the élan vital to a university," the policy reads. The addendum would have given some of that freedom to the university with passages such as "research that entails advocacy for or unnecessary exposure to or preoccupation with practices that are inconsistent with Baptist faith or practice will not receive Baylor's financial or other support."

Many faculty members felt this wording was far too vague and gave dangerous license to curtail academic freedom. This sentiment is expressed in the Faculty Senate minutes of May 4 when the senate was presented the proposed addendum. The senate voted to "reject the proposal in the strongest terms possible" by a unanimous vote with one abstention after "expressing] vigorous opposition to the envisioned modifications."

Later that month, Jeffrey gave a speech at Wheaton College which also was highly criticized. In that speech he advocated "communal freedom," a form of academic freedom in which the university has the right to set up group standards, which the individual must adhere to, according to a recent article in the Baptist Standard. These standards would try to ensure that Baylor's Christian identity is maintained.

The issue of Baylor maintaining its Christian identity while protecting academic freedom is somewhat unique because many Christian universities, such as Wheaton, are creedal Dr. Ann McGlashan, chairwoman of the Academic Freedom and Responsibilities committee in the Faculty Senate, said. This means that incoming faculty sign a statement of beliefs upon employment, hence there is no question as to what they will teach.

According to McGlashan, her committee serves as an avenue for faculty to present possible academic freedom violations and for the administration to seek faculty perspective within the scope of academic freedom. This is a standing committee in the Faculty Senate. Diana Garland, chairwoman of the School of Social Work and the Academic Freedoms in the Disciplines Committee, describes her committee as finding effective ways to teach controversial topics in the classroom in a Christian context. The issue of academic freedom is paramount for students because it affects the relevancy of the information they are taught, Dr. Jay Losey, associate professor of English and member of the Academic Freedom and Responsibility Committee, said.

"By protecting academic freedom, one is protecting the right of the professor to present the student with his or her most recent information and research. For the student, this means that they will be educated with the most recent information and be able to succeed in their discipline," Losey said.

The discussion over academic freedom culminated in a debate between Jeffrey and law professor Bill Underwood on Oct. 27. Underwood cited both the Wheaton speech and addendum as reasons for the debate and the administration's response to the Feb. 27 Lariat editorial on homosexuality.

More than 200 people attended the debate including President Robert B. Sloan Jr. and former president Herbert Reynolds.

Issues represented, discussed

With Underwood advocating individual freedom and dissent and Jeffrey arguing for community responsibility and warning against extremes, both sides of the issue were glad to have a civil debate.

"It's OK to talk about these things, to disagree on important substantive issues and to express your disagreement," Underwood said. "I believe we need more of these conversations on campus."

Both participants said they felt that the content of the debate was both relevant and vital to the success of the university.

"[The issues] have to do with how do you balance the legitimate and highly important needs of individual academic freedom with our obligations and responsibilities to function in a healthy way in a democratic and Christian community," Jeffrey said.

Dr. Walter Bradley, a distinguished professor of engineering and attendee of the debate, agreed with Jeffrey in the need to find a balance between individual freedom and Baylor's Christian responsibilities.

"I think Baylor's stakeholders want their children to come to Baylor because they have certain assumptions about the intellectual community they will experience here. I think most anticipate that their experience will be one that supports traditional Christian worldview," Bradley said. "I think that the question Baylor faces is: how do we maintain the balance between allowing people to have academic freedom and at the same time be able to support some common set of core values and beliefs?"

Still, many recognize the dangers of communally limiting research and teaching that may appear to go against Baptist values.

"Universities operate at the frontier of knowledge and all new knowledge is controversial. There are always those vested in the status quo," Tatum said.