PUC Professor: Why I Invited Ryan Bell to Speak

My name is Aubyn Fulton, I have been a professor of psychology at Pacific Union College for the last 28 years, and I am the one who invited Ryan Bell to speak to my class. Those who are critical of this decision should direct all attacks at me, as the school was not involved in the invitation in any way. I did not consult with the president, academic dean, my department chair or department colleagues before issuing the invitation. For some this may seem unusual, or even, as one of my colleagues has suggested in a note on this site, unethical. I can only point out over the last 28 years that I have never once consulted in advance with any institutional supervisor about how I structure my class periods. I am aware of no requirement that I or any other faculty member do so, nor am I aware of any ethical principle that would make such notification advisable, even were it practical. I was aware that having Ryan present in my course might be controversial for some, and might cause problems for administrators; however the same could be said for many of the hours that I teach every quarter. We cannot teach effectively in fear of offending the most conservative (or most liberal) factions of our constituency. I treated my invitation to Ryan Bell precisely the way I have treated the thousands of class hours I have been responsible for preparing over the last 28 years. I understand and respect how difficult is the task of a college president. I worked very hard to find and suggest compromises that would address most of the concerns that were raised about my invitation while preserving most of the benefit of having Ryan present. All of these were rejected without comment, and it was made clear to me that the administration had no interest in working with me to find a solution.

I have no regrets about how I handled this situation; I believed two months ago, when I invited Ryan that he was an especially relevant and appropriate speaker for this particular class, and I continue to believe that. What I do deeply regret is the action taken by the PUC president to ban Ryan from campus and rescind my invitation to have him teach in my class without my permission and over my strong and repeated objections. I apologize to Ryan for the poor treatment he has been shown by my institution.

I always welcome feedback on the decisions I make while exercising my responsibilities as a teacher, and it has been a rare opportunity to receive so much unsolicited feedback in this case. As always, I have endeavored to open myself up to advice and correction from colleagues, students, administrators and other interested parties. At the same time, I have learned to live with criticism and disapproval. Higher education is not a popularity contest, and teaching decisions are not made based on what will offend the least number of people.

This comment is already long and will get longer, but I would like to state for the record several points about this episode in order to correct some misunderstandings that seem to have crept into the conversation, and make clear the context and reasons for the invitation. I am sure many will still be critical of my decision, but it seems best for such criticism to be made with a fuller understanding of the situation:

Discussion of this event seems most often to refer to Ryan having been invited to speak on campus, and comparisons are being made to similar controversies at other institutions involving commencement addresses or other general campus events. I am actually on record as being opposed to those types of censorship as well, including when the target is someone with whom I deeply disagree. It is important to keep in mind though that Ryan was not invited by “the college,” or to speak to some open, non-specific group of students. Ryan was invited by a teacher to speak to a formal, regular course. No one other than the teacher typically is involved in such decisions, and it is irregular in the extreme for anyone other than the course teacher to be involved in changing such decisions.

PUC is under no obligation to recognize academic freedom if it does not want to, but for many decades it has chosen to include an academic freedom statement in its Faculty Handbook and Faculty Contract. Academic freedom is not absolute, but if it means anything it must mean that faculty have the right to say and do things in their courses with which administration, the Board and significant fractions of the constituency strongly disagree. The decision by the PUC president to censor my class is the most egregious violation of academic freedom I have ever seen at PUC, and calls into question whether there is any meaningful academic freedom here. One can argue that my decision to invite Ryan to speak to my class was a mistake (I do not believe it was, but I have been known to have been wrong in the past); but it cannot be argued that censoring Ryan was consistent with PUC’s stated commitment to academic freedom.

I did not invite Ryan to persuade my students to give up their faith (this should be obvious and go without saying, but I have seen that it is not). I invited Ryan to share his personal story (his journey from fundamentalist to atheist) and to talk about his newest project (“Life After God” - which I highly recommend to interested parties) which is aimed at supporting people who are struggling with religious doubts. Obviously, supporting people struggling with religious doubts is a big part of the mission of an Adventist Christian liberal arts college as well.

The suggestion that the “Life After God” project is somehow inconsistent with the mission of PUC or any Adventist college or university could only be made by someone who intentionally ignores its stated purpose, which specifically not to try to persuade people to become atheists. The program also makes clear and explicit that “After God” often refers to people who are deeply committed to their faith, but are in transition from one understanding of God, that perhaps was too rigid, limited or immature, to another. No one should be surprised that an Adventist college campus is full of people in this situation.

I made the decision to invite Ryan to my class because in my judgment his story and current project was uniquely relevant to the specific learning objectives of the course, one of which is to help students better appreciate the tensions and the compatibilities of faith and learning. This has been a learning objective for our Department and this course for many years, and no administrator has ever challenged it. For any conversation about faith and learning to be honest, it must include the real option of arriving at an anti-faith position. To censor or ban that position is to invalidate the faith development of the majority of students. In the course I invited Ryan to speak to, we regularly schedule class periods devoted to the faith and learning conversation, almost always by people who have clear and unapologetic commitments to Adventist faith. My judgment was (and remains) that it is appropriate to occasionally invite someone to participate in this conversation that has different commitments. This is how students learn.

Arguments that college students are too young, unsophisticated or immature to handle presentations by atheists are insulting to these young adults and badly misunderstand what higher education, and religious maturity, are all about. In my experience, more Adventist young adults reject their faith because they have experienced a closed system unwilling to interact with differing points of view than because they have listened to people with whom they disagree.

The censorship of my class and the banning of Ryan Bell strengthens the atheist argument that religious faith is incompatible with intellectual honesty and exposure to a wide spectrum of perspectives and evidence. I of course am not an atheist, and I dispute the claim that faith is incompatible with an open and honest search for truth. I wrote my doctoral dissertation in psychology on mature religious faith. My argument then, and my subsequent 28-year teaching career at PUC, has been based on the premise that religious maturity is undermined by attempts at indoctrination and censorship of alternative views, and is strengthened by exposure to and genuine exploration of a spectrum of viewpoints. Mature religious faith requires open and honest confrontation with all critical voices, and is best formed in what psychologist Gordon Allport called the “workshop of doubt”. As I told my class last week, if I thought it were true that exposure to contrary positions was damaging to faith, then I would be an atheist too. Fortunately, this is not true. Sadly, the censorship of Ryan Bell at PUC last week made it that much more difficult to argue that Adventist education is anything more than indoctrinating students to parrot back the beliefs and thoughts of their elders. I wish the administrators at PUC, and many in its constituency, had more confidence in their faith, and more courage to stand for its basic values. As one of the most influential writers in my own faith development once famously wrote, it is the work of true education to train our young people to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought.

Aubyn Fulton, PhD, is Professor of Psychology with an emphasis on Clinical Psychology at Pacific Union College.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7170


I wonder if this might be of interest to the Accrediting body that PUC is part of. At issue seems to be the free exercise of academic ideas and the rights of teachers to operate in a spirit of freedom in their classes.


I don’t think any damage would have been done (to the students) by allowing Ryan Bell to speak, in fact, it may have served to strengthen the faith of many students. But it doesn’t surprise me that the actions taken by PUC administration have unfolded in this manner. Perhaps the college administrators felt blindsided by Professor Fulton.

Fortunately, Ryan Bell’s many points of view are readily available online, so it is impossible to shield anyone with an internet connection from exposure to the thoughts of Ryan Bell. This entire episode should drive plenty of traffic to the many websites featuring Ryan Bell.


it would do well ro reread the essay and standard of Academic Freedom by the AAUP. it specifically allows for denominational supported colleges and universities to limit Academic Freedom if it is in conflict with the mission statement of the institution. If Des Ford was off limits, pray tell why would you think, Ryan Bell would be invited, particularly since he was terminated by his Conference. stiudents have the freedom to read his works without institutional endorsement. furthermore atheists are a dime a dozen. What is needed is the life story of C.S. Lewis. Tom Z


Graeme Sharock above, asks about “the Accrediting body that PUC is part of”:

Accrediting Body: Accrediting Commission for Schools Western Association of Schools and Colleges;
Northern California Office
533 Airport Boulevard, Suite 200
Burlingame, CA 94010-2009
Phone: 650 696-1060
Fax: 650 696-1867
Email: mail@acswasc.org

Someone should make the call.


I write this with a heavy heart because I see Dr. Fulton’s relationship with students every day and I see his commitment to the profession of psychology and to God. To hear many criticize him and make assumptions hurts because I know how much he cares for students - not money, not numbers, not public relations, but the students. Aubyn, how you continue without striking back amazes me. There are moments I wish you wouldn’t take the high road but I know that isn’t God’s way - just my human nature. Thank you for being you and may God sustain you as He sustained Jesus when the spirit of religiosity assaulted Him.


One of our first mistakes was in going to the world for accreditation. If we had followed the counsel given us, we wouldn’t need their permission for anything. “Academic Freedom” in a religious institution should be limited to that which does not undermine the faith of our students. If a professor is not committed to the truth, in the context of SDA doctrines, he should find employment elsewhere. It’s one thing to explain the beliefs of other religious entities, both Christian and non-Christian, it’s another thing to provide a platform for someone who has rejected the church, to influence our students with their heretical ideas. Our professors should be strong defenders of the faith, rather than giving voice to doubts about the reliability of Scripture, as is done in some science classes. The same goes for the issue of homosexuality. The church has a clear stand on this issue. Professors who are not in agreement with it, and who, rather than trying to help their students overcome these sinful tendencies, give them the false hope that they are fine the way they are, are undermining the church and endangering the souls of these students.


Dear Aubyn,

If my students’ welfare and learning experiences were a priority, I would have invited Ryan Bell to speak because people often experience a crisis of faith, regardless of their denominational identity and we learn by understanding others’ perspectives on these matters. I have counselled many Christians over the years and this is a relevant issue. However, I think that you were naïve if you did not take into account the consequences of your decision or maybe you were testing the boundaries? I don’t think that too much academic freedom exists these institutions. Good luck with this one. Rene Gale (PhD Psychology student).


Let me be very simplistic in my opinion: If a police academy invites a thief to have a lecture for their students so it could be also very wise for a religious school to invite a former believer and a converted atheist.


Tihomir, a person without faith or who loses his or her faith is not an ideological criminal. If you don’t recognize that the world is profoundly ambiguous and that honest people come down on both sides of the faith/no faith issue, you might need to sit through just such a class as the one Aubyn had planned.,


Police Depts frequently invite thieves to address the police so that the police will have inside knowledge of crimes. It’s a staple of training and continuing education for them.


It’s a tough world out there, Professor Fulton. There are other ways to achieve your goal other than invite a “hot potato” to your classroom. Besides, the best way to challenge a belief, as compared to indoctrination, is to first solidify its foundation and it is common knowledge that our brain’s executive center, the frontal cerebral cortex, does not mature until completion of the second decade and thereafter. Ask any car insurance company.

The best venue to achieve your “premise” is to quit academia and enter private practice. Take for example our Spectrum prophet-in-residence @GeorgeTichy Then you can call your shots. Until then, you’ll have to dig deep into your bag of tricks (coping skills) to walk the fine line.

Good luck.



Aubyn, @afulton

I usually agree with you in your positions. However, this time I have a couple of comments:

  1. In my opinion, since it was a controversial speaker being invited (and you knew it), I believe that you could have been more careful with the invitation process. Remember, that is an Adventist institution, and Adventists panic when some words are said, like “atheism.”

  2. Administrators are always fearful that something happening on campus may end up triggering a phone call from “the guys upstairs in black suits.”

  3. Some risks are not worth taking.

  4. If the President dis-invited Ryan herself, and against your will, this was so unethical that you certainly learned a lot more about that person. Another reason to just be more careful.

  5. PUC is still called a “college,” so it’s not to be expected that on such a campus one should find total academic freedom as on an University (universal) campus. And even at some SDA Universities, academic freedom is treated very poorly. SDAs are always fearful of new knowledge, of open and free thinking. It’s in the SDA DNA! I call it the SAD DNA!!! (Not a typo… )

I can’'t imagine your frustration for being boycotted in your teaching effort. But this is what happens in our midst, and we all know it. You knew it too, but you still took a shot at it. No surprise, though, that you had a “shut door” experience again. Ultimately, the School has the right to approve/disapprove who they allow on campus.

Keep doing what you do well,. encouraging students to be free thinkers!!! They will need it in their lifetime journey.

PS: I understood that the President sent the dis-invitation against your will. Did she actually consult you about doing that? Did she ask YOU to do it? If not, if she had asked you to send the dis-invitation yourseld, woulf you have done it?

Tim @timteichman ,

When fanatic sectarianism overpowers one’s reasoning and logical thinking, this is what we get! Adventist’s “-isms” are many: separatism, judgmentalism, triumphalism, cultism, superior-ism (?!), exclusiv-ism (?!), and other “isms” are indeed an embarrassment and a complicating factor.

I wish Adventism could be just a Christian religion focusing on the Gospel, avoiding the cultic aspects that have often poisoned several other religious systems. But, the farther a religion distance itself from the Sola Scriptura principle, the worse the cult-ism becomes.

Tim, I am not surprised that probably only 20% of your friends from PUC are still Adventists.


This whole case offers no evidence of the above. Do you really believe that the main reason for the PUC President to react that way was a matter of faith? Had it been the case, she would have allowed the event to roll without interference. (True faith does not fear challenges like that!!!)

Based on another case in the past between her and Aubyn, it is obvious that there is a “power & control” issue going on between them, apparently both being equally guilty of poking each other.

When I was a little kid I used to walk on some pastures at our (then called) Brazilian College. They had many cows around, so we could always see those big rounded “things” on the ground. Those that were dry didn’t smell anymore, unless we poked them with a rod, of if someone inadvertently stepped on them (…Uhhh!). The same is happening between Aubyn and the Prez, when they "poke the “s**t” again, it stinks again!

I don’t know which of them this cat represents… Probably both! :wink:



Great article! Very thoughtful and well stated. I attended PUC from 1985 - 1989. We may have even met!

Unfortunately I’m not at all surprised by this. My experience with PUC is that the administration is obsessed with everything except properly running an institution of higher learning. They are much, much more concerned with making sure all the girls are locked up in their dorms at night and the boys don’t have any beer on campus than with perfecting the craft of providing an adequate, much less excellent, education. They behave as if they are under some delusional spell that makes them think they can keep all of their charges sober virgins until they are 22 or so. In the middle of the Napa valley.

This case seems to strongly indicate that you have no freedom to decide how to run your class. This sort of amateur hour by PUC’s administration is why I have not and plan not to ever send my kids to PUC or to any other Adventist college. I prefer colleges that are interested in education. If I wanted my girls protected from the outside world and scary ideas from atheists, I’d send them to a nunnery.

Besides, Heather has a PhD in English, so that seems to make her fully qualified to re-write your plans, right? Maybe this is a new thing. You can start correcting the English departments choices of reading materials. I hear they’ve had students read works that were written by atheists! You could forward this list to them as as start for all types of materials to avoid: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_atheist_authors

It’s not the students, but the administration that matches this description.

I think you’re right that faith is not incompatible, but I will add that the SDA church is incompatible, and it is getting worse. Various clues lead me to this position, including this case, the recent one at La Sierra, and the atrocities of the last GC. Church leadership is either willfully ignorant of such things or completely incompetent. I haven’t decided which just yet.

The very idea that listening to Ryan is somehow going to cause PUC to fail to execute its mission is illogical and very likely flat wrong. But then, I’m not sure what the PUC administration thinks their mission is. If it is to provide a cocoon devoid of dissenting ideas, where 18 - 22 year old college students can be treated like high school students, are insulted on regular basis, then perhaps they are fulfilling their mission.

I still remember the “World Religions” class I took at PUC. It sounded good, so I signed up. I was so very disappointed to find that all the professor did was briefly describe various religions and then spend 1/2 of every class lecture comparing them to Christianity, particularly Adventist Christianity, deriding them and declaring them inferior. It was an embarrassment. By today’s standards it was actually quite offensive. My experience at PUC is peppered with similar stories.

Of all of my college friends from PUC, perhaps 20% are still Adventists. IMO PUC did much to encourage us to leave the church and little to nothing at all to encourage us to stay, and their efforts paid off. Many of us still get together to deride the education we didn’t get at PUC and tell stories that we have come to understand since as very poor behavior from a collegiate institution.


I agree with Elmer and George above.

The president has bigger fish to fry, a broader view than yours regarding academic freedom. She has to think of all aspects, and decided that the call of this man was inappropriate. The students just might need a firmer foundation in Adventism before they have to tackle Ryan.

You seem to see merit in his approach, something I do not see, but I haven’t read much of his material. Nevertheless, the president has the ultimate say, and perhaps keeping her informed would have avoided this glitch.


As demonstrated here, there are PUC graduates who have been so indoctrinated (whether at school or church) that their minds are completely closed to any new ideas of religion and reject all those that do not agree with the traditional beliefs.

A college bound granddaughter visited PUC and was very impressed, but I question whether she would be willing to have her learning “controlled” in this manner. Political correctness is not a problem only at secular colleges. Adventist colleges must abide by PC but also RC (religious correctness) conforming to the school administrators who make unilateral decisions in defining “academic freedom.”


Seen by itself, inviting Mr. Bell is no cause for alarm. The real issue here is the kind of controversial attention Dr. Fulton is fond of attracting.

At PUC, I remember cafeteria table conversations where some of his students felt special for holding views that are rather conventional on many campuses. What his disciples enjoyed was the fleeting awe their views elicited among students irretrievably ossified in a provincial, conservative world.

My feeling was that their teacher also enjoyed being the eccentric liberal on campus. Though I sympathized with many of his social concerns, I found his overzealous methods to be less than wise.

A man of his experience could aim to be more effective by honestly examining his (not very cautious) history. A tinge of realism should steady his hand to be more pragmatic. Rehashing the old academic freedom argument on an Adventist campus is riddled with contradictions which (by now) he should find very familiar. After all, he was a college student at PUC, right?


Thanks for your thoughtful remarks, Aubyn. I can appreciate both viewpoints–but considering he need to think and ponder and think deep would tend to go with Aubyn. Thoughtful consideration of doubt is is on the path to gnosis.

When I was at PUC someone admitted he had tendencies toward being an agnostic in running for student office. Someone else made huge deal about that, a rather facile thinker and campaigner, who won the campaign but probably not thinking for life.

In the long-run doesn’t student appreciate a teacher who can help folks consider and thoughtfully deliberate on the most skeptical points. I skeptical viewpoints are not considered is real education achieved, or simpl
y brainwashing and facile teaching?

My argument then, and my subsequent 28-year teaching career at PUC, has been based on the premise that religious maturity is undermined by attempts at indoctrination and censorship of alternative views, and is strengthened by exposure to and genuine exploration of a spectrum of viewpoints. Mature religious faith requires open and honest confrontation with all critical voices, and is best formed in what psychologist Gordon Allport called the “workshop of doubt”. <<

the person i really feel sorry for in this entire episode is heather knight…i believe she’s only been president for around 5 or 6 yrs, and she’s already had to make more than one tough call…her job can’t be easy, but she’s doing it very well…


I strongly admire your courage for being so open about this invitation to Ryan Bell and how he was uninvited without your permission. I also admire your conviction to uphold academic freedom. Ryan was my pastor who I only knew personally a few weeks before he was asked to resign. I had just come back to the church after leaving it for about a dozen years. I had left not because of losing my faith in God but because of a lack of faith that my fellow church members would accept and care for me as a transwoman that had just come out of the closet. Ryan did a marvelous job of helping the members of the Hollywood SDA Church to reach out to all members of society to demonstrate the kind of loving acceptance for everyone that Jesus had. I quickly recognized this genuine care, and within about 2 months of first crossing the threshold of this church, I joined it and was accepted into full membership. Today, I share with two other teachers a Sabbath School class in this church, and all three of us teachers hold high the principle of academic freedom. Here, the students feel free to think and to express their thoughts and convictions. I am convinced that yours do too. Thank you for being who you are.