Academic Freedom Alleged Under Attack at PUC


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Pacific Union College students, faculty and alumni have expressed fears that academic freedom on the campus is being undermined by the institution's administration. Monte Butler, chair of the PUC Psychology and Social Work Department, has announced his resignation, effective at the end of the school year. The future of other faculty members is uncertain. Long-time PUC faculty members Aubyn Fulton and Greg Schneider have said they feel their academic freedom at the college has been curtailed under President Heather Knight.

In a Facebook post, Schneider said: "The President is acting as if she believes that she has the authority to direct teachers what to say and not to say in classes and in their other venues and functions and that not following her directives is insubordination. . . The President is also acting as if she has the authority to determine what disagreements with SDA church statements PUC teachers may express and which they may not."

In a message to the campus community this week, PUC President Heather Knight said:

"As we discuss these important issues, it is my prayer that Pacific Union College should be a campus characterized by nothing less than Christian Civility. A member of our campus community has stated, "I think that we would like to see a return to collegial resolution of conflict and disagreement at PUC; perhaps we can all think of ways to model that as we think about our responses to the current issues." I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, and so over the next few weeks it is my intention to move these conversations into their proper venues, such as meetings with select individuals and groups across the campus, including PUC's Academic Senate. I believe that these conversations, if held in a civil and collegial way, can constitute an important "teachable moment" for PUC as a learning organization, and I look forward to all of us learning together."

On January 16, a Facebook group was created called Stand With PUC. Administrators of the open group urged people to "add every single SDA person that you know," and in two days there were more than 3,000 members. The impetus for creating the group was described thus:

"In the last 48 hours we have seen that the Pacific Union College Psychology and Social Work department is under fire by the current administration. It is clear there is a shake-up imminent as professors that are loved by the entire student body are being accused of being insubordinate for their involvement with groups such as GASP, the unofficial gay straight alliance on campus. . . We are deeply concerned about this grave threat to academic freedom at a campus of higher education. We care deeply about Adventist higher education and want to make sure that our campuses remain places of critical inquiry, personal reflection, and academic excellence rooted in Christian values of love and respect, even when we have differences."

A Tumblr site was set up, too.

Aubyn Fulton, psychology professor at PUC, and Greg Schneider, professor of religion and social science who has been on the faculty since 1977, both posted detailed and measured responses and explanations on the Facebook page.

Part of Fulton's substantive statement read:

"Academic Freedom is at the heart of the issues involving the PSW faculty right now. But Academic Freedom is not a trump card, and is not absolute. We believe it must be applied in the context of the culture and values of each academic community. So the dispute is really over how that freedom should be understood and applied here, and at the core is the question of why the current administration believes it needs to curtail the range of Academic Freedom from what it has been over at least the last three decades or so (and as it has been guaranteed in the faculty contract). We certainly understand that there will be a variety of views on this, and while we have strong ones, we respect those who might disagree.

GASP [Gay and Straight People - an unofficial campus group that meets weekly] has not been an issue at all in the current dispute. My relationship with GASP has not been mentioned in the president’s demands to me, and she has made no threat against LGBTQ students at PUC. I don’t want any LGBTQ student at PUC to have even a small worry about this. GASP is on a very strong footing, there are lots of faculty and staff allies here, and GASP will survive any personnel changes that may (or may not) occur in the near future."

See Aubyn Fulton's complete Facebook remarks here.

Greg Schneider offered an informative history of the dispute, and defined some of the terms figuring in the debate, such as "the new PUC," "sparkle," and "academic freedom." He went on to say:

"On September 13, 2013, Drs. Monte Butler and Aubyn Fulton attended a meeting they expected to be between them and the President and the Academic Dean. Without prior notice to them, the President also invited a college lawyer and the college Human Relations Director to be present. This was the context for three-page letter the President presented to Dr. Fulton detailing grounds for dismissal based on the language of the Faculty Handbook. The letter did not announce his dismissal but instead suggested that unless he changed his conduct the President might feel compelled to consider “separation” of his employment from the college. The meeting lasted for more than an hour and, from what I remember of Dr. Butler’s report of it to me, was exceedingly unpleasant for him and for Dr. Fulton. I believe Dr. Butler’s disaffection from PUC that eventually moved him to look for new employment began at that meeting. I arrived in the office just after he got out of the meeting and he declared to me that he had just had the worst experience ever in all his years at PUC.

The characterization I offer below of the “new perspective on academic freedom” is based on my reading of the President’s letter to Dr. Fulton and on the context of its presentation as that context has been reported to me by Dr. Butler and Dr. Fulton.

NEW PERSPECTIVE ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM

The President is acting as if she believes that she has the authority to direct teachers what to say and not so say in classes and in their other venues and functions and that not following her directives is insubordination. If, for instance, I anonymously survey students about their sexual practices--specifying clearly that they have the option NOT to participate--and this practice is disapproved by the President despite its relevance to my teaching objectives, the President claims the authority to force me to stop. Not stopping is insubordination and insubordination is one of the grounds for dismissal specified in the PUC Faculty Handbook.

The President is also acting as if she has the authority to determine what disagreements with SDA church statements PUC teachers may express and which they may not. If one disagrees with the church in roughly the same way the President does, that does not amount to repudiation of the church. If one disagrees with the church in other ways, it becomes repudiation of the church in the President’s judgment. Repudiation of the church is another one of the grounds for dismissal specified in the PUC Faculty Handbook. If, for instance, I disagree with the church’s stand on women’s ordination--as the President also does--I am not judged to have repudiated the church. If I disagree with the church’s statements about the Biblical legitimacy of a lifelong covenanted intimate relationship between homosexual persons, I am judged to have repudiated the church.

I want to emphasize, in conclusion, that I may indeed be on the wrong end of the debate in both of these examples, but if academic freedom means anything, it means the freedom to be wrong and then to learn over time, maybe a long time, in conversation with your colleagues. If it means only the freedom to be right, it is no freedom at all, and everyone will be self-censoring for fear of not being right. That creates a college without collegiality, a contradiction in terms."

Greg Schneider also posted a piece concerning academic freedom that he wrote several years ago for Spectrum. Download the whole article here.

This story has been corrected to show that GASP is an unofficial campus organiztion.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5766