Baylor Hosts National Conference On Academic Freedom

April 6, 2000

by Lori Scott Fogleman

Can a religiously affiliated university be both faithful and free academically? Can an institution be forward-looking in the search for new ideas and innovative insights and at the same time be a faithful guardian of the ancient traditions revealed in Torah, in Gospel, in scripture?

Those issues were debated by more than three dozen scholars from across the nation during "Exploring Boundaries: Academic Freedom at Religiously Affiliated Colleges and Universities," a national conference held March 31-April 2 at Baylor University. The conference was sponsored jointly by Baylor; the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the nation's leading defender of academic freedom; the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, both premier organizations of religious scholarship.

"There is a widespread perception that Baylor is at the forefront of institutions that take academics and faith seriously," said Dr. Lynn Tatum, lecturer in religion, president of the Texas conference of the AAUP and organizer of the conference. "That the nation's premier, cross-disciplinary faculty organization (AAUP) wanted to hold a national conference at Baylor is a recognition of our status in the academy.

"The speakers ranged from 'faith-takes-precedence' advocates to 'academic-freedom absolutists.' We gathered the nation's most articulate, thoughtful and well-informed thinkers on the topic," Tatum said.

Keynote speakers for the conference included Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. One of the creators and former presidents of the Society of Christian Philosophers, Wolterstorff spoke on "Ivory Tower or Holy Mountain: Academic Freedom and Faith" to more than 100 conference participants during Friday's opening session. Dr. Mary Burgan, AAUP general secretary and adjunct professor of English at Indiana University, delivered the keynote address, "Faithful and Free: A Call for Academic Freedom," during Saturday's luncheon session.

During his opening session address, Wolterstorff said his assignment was simply to set up a framework for the discussions on academic freedom at religiously affiliated colleges and universities.

"Ours is a liberal democratic society and in a liberal democratic society the state is to refrain from inducting its citizens into any comprehensive perspective on God and the good," Wolterstorff said. "A consequence is that in this country there's nothing an academic is free to teach in the public educational sector that he is not free to teach somewhere in the private educational sector, whereas the converse is not true. There are many things an academic is free to teach somewhere in the private educational sector that he is not free to teach in the public sector."

Wolterstorff added that there is more academic freedom in the private sector of the American educational system than there is in the public, a point that is seldom made in discussions about the topic.

However, he cautioned that if the scope of academic freedom in the private sector of American education was infringed upon, it would be a "tragedy of massive proportions."

"There's a tendency in some writers to think through the contours of duly-qualified academic freedom for state and secular, private educational institutions, and then to argue, or just assume, that those same contours ought to be held for all educational institutions whatsoever," he said. "But imposing those contours would not only violate the personhood of many of those who teach in these private institutions, many of whom believe with all their heart that they are called to live out in the academy their religious convictions, rather than confining those convictions to the sectors of the familial and the ecclesiastical. It would in addition impoverish our society as a whole by seriously diminishing the rich diversity of learning that the American educational system now produces."

Dr. Michael Beaty, Baylor associate professor of philosophy and director of the Institute for Faith and Learning, met Wolterstorff when Beaty was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in 1984. While introducing him, Beaty spoke about the professor's contributions to the renewed interest in the philosophy of religion.

"When Professor Wolterstorff began his professional philosophical career in the mid-1950s, few Americans or English-speaking philosophers paid much attention to religion, except as some quaint phenomenon of an intellectually naive or more primitive era," Beaty said. "In those days at most major research universities or graduate schools, it seemed that the only intellectually respectable question for philosophers was something like is religious language meaningful or more specifically does it make sense to speak of God?

"Times have changed and now the philosophical fare with respect to religious belief and practice is far more hearty and the conversation far more rich and substantial. Professor Wolterstorff's reason within the bounds of religion and the volume he co-edited with Alvin Plantinga, 'Faith and Rationality,' made significant contributions to the effort to think reasonably about faith and faithfully about reason," Beaty said.

Burgan, who was introduced Saturday as an "advocate of religiously affiliated institutions and of their vital constituency in the national AAUP," talked about the presentation of the latest Templeton Prize for progress in religion to the British physicist, and noted agnostic, Freeman Dyson. She said Dyson came to the conclusion that he might have been given the Templeton because he was interested in religion, not as theological doctrine or teleological metaphysics, but as a "way of life."

"The academic life, in its joining of the cognitive with the ethical, is something of a religious way of life," she said. "It is not only in the conscious beliefs that may motivate one or another faculty member in the academic life, but also in the connections of trust that faculty members make with one another, with students, and with the larger society as they pursue not only truth but ethically informed principles."

Burgan urged that all professors of institutions "secular and religious, private or public, must act as candidates for the Templeton Prize because we engage in a way of professional life that indeed may be called religious."

The AAUP general secretary concluded her keynote with a quote from William James' essay, The Will to Believe. "We act, taking our lives in our own hands. No one of us ought to issue vetoes nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, to the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another's mental freedom. Then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic. Then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance in soulless. Then only shall we live and let live in speculative as well as practical things," she said.

Scholars from several universities and colleges including Baylor, St. Joseph's University, Calvin College, Brigham Young University, Saint Mary's College of California, Georgetown University and Harvard Divinity School, participated in plenary panels and breakout sessions that explored such topics as the legal status of academic freedom, the polity of academic freedom, the implications of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the proper role of external constituencies.

A Sunday morning interdenominational worship service sponsored by Baylor featured Dr. William J. Abraham, The Alonzo I. McDonald Visiting Professor in Evangelical Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, who spoke on "The Shock of Divine Revelation" in one of Baylor's most treasured sites, the Meditation Foyer of the Armstrong Browning Library.

At the beginning of the conference, Dr. William Pitts, professor of religion at Baylor and well-known Branch Davidian historian, and Robert Darden, assistant professor of English and author of Mad Man in Waco, led a tour of the site of the former Branch Davidian compound near Waco.

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