All Posts Tagged With: "Trinity Western University"
University wants participation in Truth and Reconciliation
Daniel Bourghardt, a third-year arts student, was overjoyed when he got an email from the University of British Columbia on Sept. 9 saying classes will be cancelled on Sept. 18.
In a grand gesture of solidarity with First Nations communities, the university has called off classes to encourage students to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) national event at the Pacific National Exhibition across town from the Vancouver campus. It’s part of a Reconciliation Week that includes performances, survivor gatherings and a downtown march on Sunday with a keynote speech by Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King. Trinity Western University, a Christian school, is also suspending classes.
Prof. Pettigrew: It’s not just the anti-gay agenda.
Canada’s Christian post-secondary institutions just can’t stay away from controversy. It seems like only yesterday, everyone (including this guy) was talking about the CAUT’s reports condemning various institutions for their lack of academic freedom.
More recently, the law community has had its briefs in a knot over Trinity Western’s push to get a law school. Can a school that requires adherence to a rigid code of belief really educate good lawyers whose very stock in trade is free and open discussion? A lot of people think not.
And now New Brunswick’s Crandall University has raised eyebrows for getting millions in federal funding. In fact, religious universities in Canada received some $20 million from the Harper Government’s 2009 Knowledge Infrastructure scheme.
On the Christian law school where gays need not apply
Have you heard? Free speech is a thing of the past. And religious liberty is dying fast.
It began last week when Arun Smith, a seventh-year human rights student at Carleton University in Ottawa, tore down a “free speech wall” on campus because it featured socially conservative comments. The action inspired three National Post columns and an Ezra Levant exclusive lamenting the end of freedom of expression as we know it.
Elsewhere, on the religious liberty front, the Canadian Council of Law Deans wrote a letter of protest to Canada’s Federation of Law Societies about Trinity Western University. The Christian liberal arts school in British Columbia wants to open a law school that would require students to sign a Community Covenant Agreement that pledges “Healthy Sexuality.” The agreement has nothing to do with gonorrhea or how to avoid it: what’s to be avoided is love and sex between people of the same gender (which is, I guess, by Trinity Western’s standards, worse than gonorrhea). “Sexual intimacy,” says the covenant, “is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman.” In other words, gays need not apply.
What students are talking about today (January 17th)
1. Gloria Dickie, editor in chief of Western University’s The Gazette has written an editorial suggesting democracy on campus is under threat after the paper was told their office, which they have occupied since 1973, is being considered as the new site of a multi-faith space—a bigger priority according to the University Students’ Council. They’ve been offered a smaller space instead. She writes that the move comes after USC proposed cutting the paper’s budget, asked to sit in on editorial meetings and considered a ban on in-person interviews. Adam Fearnall, USC president, told National Post that, “on occasion, perhaps [The Gazette] is overdramatic.” But many journalists on Twitter have sided with the editor. “Got to hand it to this year’s USC. Previous editions almost never managed to become national laughing stocks. Aim high! Purple pride!” wrote UWO alumnus and Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells. It now looks like Dickie may get her way. After committing to further discussions, Fearnall told the Gazette on Wednesday: “I was pleased that we were able to make progress on these important issues. Students rely upon the Gazette and the USC to sustain a strong student voice.”
Private university would have B.C.’s fourth law program
Trinity Western University, a privately-funded Christian school in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, wants to open its own law school. As Canadian Lawyer Magazine reports, Trinity Western hopes for approval from the provincial government and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada within the next six to 12 months. The school envisions a three-year JD program that will take its first cohort of 60 students in September 2015.
If approved, the law program will be the fourth in B.C. Last year, Thompson Rivers University opened the province’s third law school in Kamloops.
Given that there is a national shortage of articling positions for law graduates, the decision to open new programs seems curious. But, as Trinity Western associate professor Janet Epp Buckingham told Canadian Lawyer Magazine, the school will hire an articling coordinator to help place students in positions post-graduation, and will encourage them to consider setting up shop in smaller communities. “The whole focus is really going to be on building skills alongside building legal analysis and understanding so that when students graduate from the law school they would be able to go into a small firm already with skills that they can use and apply,” she told the magazine.
A simple solution for the Christmas controversy blues
Last year around this time I was startled to notice a small nativity scene set up in our university cafeteria. I considered making a formal complaint to the effect that at a public university such overtly religious symbols should be avoided. But it was only a little one, and even my great and growing peevishness has its limits.
Still, it’s easy to see why Christmas poses such a problem for educational institutions. On one hand, it is a venerable annual tradition for millions, with a seemingly endless store of symbols and songs to draw upon. On the other hand, for many, it is among the holiest days of the year, and one still hears a phrase like “the true meaning of Christmas” where “true meaning” is meant to suggest the religious meaning.
And so it is no surprise that controversy and indignation has become one of our new favourite holiday traditions.
The answer may enrage you.
Having posted over a hundred entries to this blog on university affairs, I may seem foolish asking a question like “what is a university?” Shouldn’t I know? Isn’t it obvious? Does it really matter?
As some philosopher said regarding time, I know what a university is — so long as nobody asks me, so I was curious as to what my own definition would look like if I tried to spell it out. The answer is not obvious, though, because a university has not always meant the same thing over the centuries, and it does not necessarily mean the same thing to everyone now. And it matters because very often the arguments we have about universities turn on our assumptions about what universities are and what they ought to be. Recent debates over certain religious universities in Canada, provide one obvious example. What follows then is my initial, and admittedly provisional attempt to define what we ought to consider a university in this country. I hope it provides readers with some food for thought and some opportunity for debate.
1. A university has two principal functions: providing instruction on matters of intellectual importance and conducting research on those same matters.
2. These two functions, to the extent reasonably possible, should support one another. University teaching, therefore, is distinguished from other modes of education not only by seeking the highest levels of sophistication, but also by deriving its vitality from the atmosphere of on-going discovery fostered at the institution. For this reason, most, if not all courses at a university should be taught by faculty who are active researchers in the disciplines in which they teach. Conversely, research ought not to be done in isolation from teaching. Researchers should be open to allowing issues that arise in teaching to suggest new research questions and, where feasible, students, both undergraduate and graduate, should be given opportunities to participate in research.
3. Because strong intellectual work can only be done in an atmosphere where scholars feel free to take risks, challenge conventions, and change their minds, universities must foster an environment that prizes intellectual freedom. Except in cases of illegal conduct, violence, or flagrant abuse of the trust placed in faculty members, universities should never seek to sway, silence, intimidate, threaten, or otherwise influence faculty members to take, renounce, or be silent on any particular position, nor to control or monitor controversial actions. Indeed, universities should take all legal action necessary to defend the academic integrity and freedom of the scholars associated with it. Academic freedom is a right of individual scholars, not of universities themselves or their administrations. Therefore, no university should seek to impinge on the academic freedom of a scholar by claiming it has an institutional freedom to do so.
4. Though university education should provide the kind of intellectual enrichment that would serve any graduate well in the working world, university education should never be construed solely or even primarily as a path to employment. Even in disciplines with obvious professional connections such as education or law, the university should first aim to teach the history, theoretical underpinnings, crucial knowledge, and critical skills necessary to build a profound understanding of the discipline. A university law program, for example, should aim primarily to produce graduates with a profound understanding of law, rather than lawyers, per se.
5. A university has one additional secondary function: to serve as a cultural touchstone in its community to encourage all members of the public to participate in the life of the mind. Universities should, within reasonable limits and without needlessly detracting from its primary missions, sponsor and host artistic performances and displays, public talks, open debates, and other events that excite interest in intellectual pursuits, broadly construed.
This to me seems like a good starting point for a real, meaningful debate on what a university should be. Some readers might object and say that I have simply described Canadian universities as they are. To the extent that that is true, we should consider ourselves lucky, and seek to conserve and develop what we already have. But as the case of Trinity Western and Redeemer have demonstrated, not all institutions that consider themselves universities would sign on to all five of my criteria — particularly the part about academic freedom. Quest University, the new private institution in BC, would certainly not qualify because it does not expect its profs to be researchers, for example. And it’s not just those universities: I think you would be hard-pressed to find many university administrators or any politicians who would endorse number 4.
In any case, what we mean by the term “university” is a debate that we have to continue to have in this country. Have at it.
Updated: secular definition of academic freedom should not rule in Canada
Under attack for allegedly violating academic freedom, Christian universities in Canada are fighting back in a decidedly academic way. They are planning to hold a conference. Last week, delegates from faith-based schools across the country were in Toronto for the annual meeting of Christian Higher Education Canada (CHEC), an advocacy group.
At the top of the agenda was the ongoing investigation being conducted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) into whether Christian institutions respect accepted rules of academic freedom.
For background click here.
The national professors union has already completed a report on Trinity Western University that concluded that due to the existence of a Statement of Faith affirming Christian beliefs, that all professors must sign, the school places “unwarranted and unacceptable constraints on academic freedom.” Canadian Mennonite University and Crandall University have also been visited by CAUT investigators.
Faced with the possibility of further rebukes against Christian schools, CHEC’s board of directors has decided to invite other groups from the post-secondary sector to participate in a “national conference to dialogue on the meaning of ‘university’ and ‘academic freedom.’” However, planning for the conference is still in the preliminary stages, and a date and venue have yet to be set. CAUT told Maclean’s it is reserving comment until a formal request to participate in the conference is made. (Update: CAUT executive director James Turk told Inside Higher Education that they would probably accept an invitation to participate in the conference.)
Al Hiebert, CHEC’s executive director, said the dispute stems from two competing definitions of academic freedom. On one side is CAUT’s position that Hiebert said represents an “unqualified academic freedom” for “every individual professor at a university.” On the other side is a view that holds institutional autonomy from outside influence above faculty independence. The latter definition is clearly favoured by faith based universities.
For example, Trinity’s statement on academic freedom protects scholarly inquiry only when it stems “from a stated perspective, i.e., within parameters consistent with the confessional basis of the constituency to which the University is responsible.”
While CAUT argues such qualifications do “not ensure genuine academic freedom,” Hiebert said respecting an institution’s autonomy to develop its own approach to scholarship, including the right to limit inquiry on faith-based grounds, is consistent with the idea of a university. “Our posture is that this CAUT position does not rule in Canada [and] should not be allowed to rule in Canada,” he said. Despite CHEC’s apparent hostility towards a principle that privileges faculty autonomy, Hiebert said he hopes that the conference can help foster “mutual understanding.”
“If some consensus position were drafted, that would be wonderful,” he said.
Lesbian music teacher got short end of the stick when dismissed from Catholic school
Lisa Reimer was teaching music at a Catholic school in Vancouver until a group of parents found out she was gay. When complaints started rolling in, Reimer was told not to come back to Little Flower Academy, she alleges. Reimer was instructed to work from home and administer assignments online for the duration of her contract, which will expire in June.
In order to teach at the school, Reimer signed a contract agreeing to adhere to “Catholic values.” Since homosexuality generally doesn’t fall under the umbrella of Catholic values, Reimer deceitfully signed the clause, or so say those of the “She Got What She Deserved” position. Then there are the “The School is Full of Homophobes” loyalists, who argue the administration should not have caved to parental pressure, and should have granted Reimer parental rights when her partner had a baby in January.
Both positions, however, are undermined by the question of whether religious schools like Little Flower should be able to wield such authority in the first place. Private religious institutions, by distinction, can exclude whomever they like—the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees it. But how is a publicly funded institution (according to CTV, the school received close to $2 million in public funding last year) sanctioned to pick only those citizens who adhere to its ideology when hiring?
My fellow blogger Todd Pettigrew took up this question when the Canadian Association of University Teachers began probing hiring practices at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) and Trinity Western University (TWU). Like Little Flower Academy, TWU requires faculty to sign a statement of faith. Pettigrew writes, “Publicly funded institutions should be for the use of the public…Even if we concede that non-Christian students can enroll in places like CMU—where they are required to take ‘Introduction to Christianity’ in their first year—non-Christian faculty are not.”
The defense to this point always seems to be, “Catholics pay taxes, so Catholics should be entitled to a piece of the pie.” Fair. But when religious schools—elementary, secondary, or university—take a slice of the public pie and only let some people eat, well, that becomes a little less fair. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists—they all pay taxes too, but provinces generally don’t fund their religious schools.
Maybe we should start? Sure! Tell that to the political train wreck that was the John Tory platform during the 2007 Ontario general election. Tory, former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, proposed to allocate $400 million to fund private religious schools in the province if elected. The plan was wickedly unpopular among voters. Did it cost Tory the election? Maybe. But more importantly, it showed that many Canadians (Ontarians, at least) didn’t think public dollars should be spent on religious schools.
In this case, Lisa Reimer got the short end of the stick. But more than a victim of discrimination, she was a casualty of a confusing system that pits religious freedom against individual rights of citizens. If anything, it shows that public dollars and a private attitudes simply don’t mix.
Can we agree that it should be a university for the public?
The recent debates over Trinity Western University and Canadian Mennonite University have taken an interesting turn. To wit, CAUT is now asking whether religious universities should receive public funding.
The answer that has been showing up frequently on this site is, in essence, Why not? If Christians are part of the Canadian public, why shouldn’t Christian institutions get a share of public money?
One response is to say that public money should be spent on the public good. Many people are smokers, but that doesn’t justify spending government money to support smoking — just the reverse, in fact. Of course, this argument implies, and relies upon, the notion that promoting religion is not in the public good, which seems obvious to me, but not to many others. And since I am unlikely to de-convert anyone here, let me suggest another argument.
Publicly funded institutions should be for the use of the public. Effectively, Christian universities are not. While, technically, non-Christians may be able to enroll in them, there is no doubt that their missions are to promote a Christian view of the world and to give, as the CMU Statement of Faith has it, “full allegiance to Christ” so they are not meant for the general public in any meaningful way. And even if we concede that non-Christian students can enroll in places like CMU – where they are required to take “Introduction to Christianity” in their first year — non-Christian faculty are not . TWU requires faculty to sign their statement of faith and CMU officials publicly acknowledge that faculty are expected to be “clearly Christian.”
Simply because different groups have different priorities does not mean that the public in general should fund those priorities. Christians don’t need their own fire departments or police forces. They don’t need their own hospitals or roads. Or, if they do, they should pay for them themselves. Now, one might argue that schools are different, that the nature of education is such that a religious education requires its own institutions with different practices and standards. Maybe so, but that requirement is a private requirement, which makes such a school, effectively, a private school. And private schools — whether called that or not — should not be financed by the public.
Now before everyone gets all upset, and starts calling me names, let me be clear. I am not saying individual religious people are necessarily bad people, or good people, or any particular kind of people. I’m talking about the big picture, here. Moreover, I am not denying that institutions such as CMU have a right to exist. I only insist that as effectively private institutions they should not have a claim to public money.
Is CAUT’s crusade against religious universities really about its opposition to private universities?
As the Canadian Association of University Teacher (CAUT) casts its web wider in its investigation of hiring practices at religious universities, new issues are being raised about the role of these types of institutions in Canada’s post-secondary community. According to Nick Martin, education reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, the question now is: “Should a university that restricts the hiring of faculty according to religious beliefs be receiving the same level of scarce public operating money as public colleges and universities?”
Martin’s article published late last week discusses CAUT’s latest probe into hiring practices, which puts the focus on Canadian Mennonite University (CMU). In October 2009, CAUT released the results of its first investigation that looked at whether Trinity Western University (TWU) was acting appropriately by requiring its professors to sign a “statement of faith.” CAUT—a union of sorts, representing faculty associations across the county, that has fought sometimes controversial fights over academic freedom since 1951—placed TWU on its blacklist of universities that violate academic freedom, effectively calling into question the school’s dedication to the very heart of what it is to be a university.
While no evidence has yet been published suggesting that CMU has a similar “faith test,” CMU president Gerald Gerbrandt told the Free Press that the province of Manitoba gave the school a mandate “to be more restrictive” by only hiring “people who are clearly Christian, that is clearly the expectation,” he said.
This practice will surely attract the disapproval of CAUT, which considers universities to have violated academic freedom if they “seek to ensure an ideologically or religiously homogeneous academic staff,” which TWU and CMU are clearly doing. CAUT is currently investigating CMU.
This is where CAUT’s argument takes a confusing turn. Martin reports that CAUT is demanding that governments only fund public institutions. At the conclusion of its TWU investigation, CAUT censured the university by placing it on its blacklist of institutions that violate academic freedom—which amounts to a virtual slap on the hand, if you will—and said no further action was planned. So by calling into question whether these schools should be funded with public dollars, CAUT is upping the stakes in its battle against religious schools.
CMU enjoys existing in a gray area by claiming to be part private part public. Interestingly, when CMU became a member of the Association of University and Colleges of Canada—which acts as an unofficial accreditation body in Canada—it claimed to be both private (it is a federation of three private colleges) and public in that it sees itself “as serving the province of Manitoba.”
CAUT executive director James Turk told the Free Press that funding for private universities is funding denied to public schools. “Canada really has no need for private institutions. They should not be receiving public money,” Turk said.
What is confusing about Turk’s comments is that there is no logical connection between being a private institution and hiring professors according to their beliefs. By going after private religious universities (most of which are non-profit, by the way) in this way, CAUT appears to be waging a broader war against these schools specifically, rather than being solely concerned about the issue of how faculty hiring affects academic freedom.
Back in January when Maclean’s published an article about TWU, the university’s president Jonathan Raymond questioned why CAUT seemed to be specifically targeting Christian universities when there have been no specific complaints from from faculty of academic freedom violations. Raymond’s question implies what Turk’s above comments seem to confirm: that CAUT’s campaign against hiring practices at religious universities is secondary to the association’s opposition to this type of institution, that its “faith test” investigations are only one part of a broader battle. Whether CAUT’s battle is against the ideology of religious universities or against private universities remains to be seen.
A Trinity Western University professor responds to the charge that religious universities are incompatible with academic freedom.
The “long war” between reason and faith, to which Todd Pettigrew alludes in the debate over Trinity Western University’s status as a university, has generated more heat than light over the proper relation between a liberal and secular society on the one hand, and religious universities on the other. Since liberalism is the semi-official ideology of the university community, it is appropriate to reflect on what the liberal approach to education actually teaches.
Seventy-five years ago, the philosopher George Santayana zeroed in on the often contradictory nature of liberalism in this vein when he distinguished between a liberal “method of government” and a liberal “principle of thought.” The first calls on all of its citizens to accept only liberalism while rejecting all other rivals to its hegemony; the second “throws the mind open to all alternatives.” Santayana implied that this was a classic case of wanting it both ways: if a liberal mode of government expects us all to be liberals, then how can we be allowed to consider all other alternatives to liberalism? “In this way,” Santayana wrote, “liberalism as a method of government may end by making liberalism difficult as a method of thought.”
Santayana’s diagnosis of liberalism’s incoherence lies at the heart of the flawed attempt to censor Trinity on the grounds that it insists that all employees sign a Statement of Faith as a condition of their employment. Is it liberal, however, to impose secular liberalism on Canadian universities? If that is the case, then any real attempt at censorship would have to monitor every single university in the nation for its adherence to completely unrestricted inquiry into all fields. Santayana himself doubted that any institution or society would ever tolerate totally unrestricted questioning, since this attitude “would smile on all types of society, as on the birds, reptiles, and carnivora at the zoo.”
I personally have never encountered any university anywhere that “smiles” on every point of view; few schools, after all, have hired open Holocaust deniers. Do the censors expect only Trinity Western University and its sister religious schools to live up to an ideal that no one else is truly expected to fulfill, namely the absolute suppression of any restrictions whatsoever on academic freedom?
Once upon a time there were liberals who welcomed, or at least did not object to, the existence of religious universities on the grounds that they too contributed to the marketplace of ideas. True liberty, as James Madison and other Enlightenment liberals understand the concept, required that a society tolerate ideas which may conflict with mainstream opinion. A pluralism that tolerates all ideas, even illiberal ones, widens the conversation over the life of the mind. To be sure, these liberals still demanded that these universities adhere to the highest standards of academic excellence. Nevertheless, they spied no contradiction between this excellence and the maintenance of a Christian tradition in these schools.
Pettigrew may well respond that secular universities do a better job of preserving the marketplace of ideas so beloved to liberals, past and present. I have grave doubts about the accuracy of this (hypothetical) claim. Trinity would not be necessary if Christian scholarship enjoyed an equal hearing on the Canadian university scene. I can point to a great deal of evidence that suggests that most academics typically go out of their way to demonize Christianity as a bigoted, irrational, and oppressive force.
One of the paradoxes of historically Christian nations like Canada or the United States is the length to which opinion-makers and academics single out this faith as the source of the gravest evils in the world today, a phenomenon which Paul Gottfried ably documents in his work Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy (2002). It is ironically illiberal that nations with Christian roots so easily tolerate the vilification of a faith tradition that helped to found Western civilization.
If we truly lived in a liberal society, the current debate over Trinity Western University’s status as a university would not be necessary. Since we do not, it is all the more necessary to preserve the distinctive contribution that our school makes to the wider university community in Canada.
Grant Havers is chair and associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University.
By Trinity Western University’s own admission, it takes many of the big questions of life as already answered.
My previous post was accused of portraying religious scholars as straw men, an accusation levelled at me by faculty and alumni of Trinity Western University itself.
In response, I have compiled the following, from TWU’s own website, explaining its views on education. There, TWU makes gestures towards openness, but those gestures are constantly contradicted by statements indicating that many of the answers to life’s most important questions have already been provided and no new answers are needed or possible. Consider (emphasis mine):
“Both individually and corporately Trinity Western wholeheartedly embraces all the Bible teaches in regard to faith, ethical commitments, and way of life, believing it to be the ultimate standard of truth and hope.”
“We base our teaching and scholarship on revealed truth, and encourage our students to consider carefully the basic worldview tenets of a biblical Christian faith.”
[TWU’s philosophy] “ invites students to consider and embrace evangelical Christian faith. One goal of our mission is to develop thoroughly Christian minds.”
“Distinctive Christian approaches are usually more evident in the humanities than in the natural sciences. But even for the latter we are engaged in faith-based learning.”
“Faith-based and faith-affirming learning intends to lead students to know God and His world.”
“We believe the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, to be the inspired Word of God, without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for the salvation of men, and the Divine and final authority for all Christian faith and life.”
“The Bible is sourced in God in a unique way that cannot be said of other literature. As a final, finished product the biblical scriptures are “without error” and can be relied on with full confidence as an authoritative guide to Gods message of salvation and the manner of living appropriate for Christian people.”
“Scripture will be of little value if it does not govern how we live out our lives both as individuals and as a corporate body. Therefore we gladly embrace it not only for our doctrinal commitments, but also for our daily lives.”
“Therefore, the faculty and staff of Trinity Western University strive to encourage confidence in the authority of the Bible and respect for its beauty, truth, and unique and divine character. We deplore an indoctrination approach that discourages authentic investigation, but we are satisfied that the truth of the Scriptures can meet any challenge.”
“Increasingly we are facing a ‘crisis of authority’ in every area of society which has resulted in a breakdown in such areas as government, business, educational institutions, the family, and even in the church. In contrast to this approach, our loyalty to Scripture requires us to reject the assumption that there is no absolute truth to which human beings must submit.
“general knowledge in itself is not sufficient to lead to salvation. That is why we need a verbal divine utterance by which God not only supplements our knowledge of the created order, but by which he also corrects our interpretation of it. Thankfully, God has given us such an authoritative Word in Scripture, the ‘complete revelation of His will for the salvation of human beings.’
So, to summarize, TWU welcomes open debate on all subjects except the following:
- Is there a God? [yes]
- If there is, what is the nature of God? [see Bible]
- Does the Bible have any special status? [yes]
- Are all religions equally valid? [no]
- Are there parts of the bible that are immoral such as its denigration of women or its endorsement of slavery? [no]
- Where did the universe come from? [God]
- How did life begin? [God]
- How does one live a moral life? [see Bible]
- What is a meaningful life? [see Bible]
- Can we fully understand the world through experience and reason? [no]
- Is there such a thing as truth? [yes]
- What is truth? [see Bible]
While I am sure that on an individual level, TWU has many fine faculty members doing good work, I cannot see how, in general, a student can pursue a skeptical, open-minded course of study on these vital questions when the university itself proclaims these questions to have been settled. Similarly, I cannot see how a student who submits an essay questioning, say, the existence of God could be graded fairly given the ideological framework of the university.
To be sure, all professors have biases and ideology, but when an institution deliberately sets out to ensure that all faculty have the same biases and ideologies, it drastically reduces the opportunity for real intellectual growth, the opportunity afforded to students who are exposed to conflicting points of view on the most important questions that face us.
The debate over Trinity Western University is merely a skirmish in a long war. A war that traditional religion is bound to lose.
I have been following with great interest the debate stirred up recently about the nature of Trinity Western University and its statement of faith required of all instructors. Much of this has spiralled off into debates over the nature of absolutist vs relativist belief and whether there is really such a thing as secular and so on. But I think the issue is, at heart, a simple one.
A university’s main goal should be the rational pursuit of knowledge and truth. Traditional religion, premised as it is on faith and revelation, is incompatible with that goal.
Take, for example, Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I am teaching to my introductory literature students right now. Paradise Lost attempts a defence of God’s justice in the light of evil and suffering in the world. This, of course, is a knotty issue and one that philosophers have struggled with over the centuries, and any decent presentation of Paradise Lost must at least acknowledge the complexity of the philosophical problems that the poem raises. If evil exists in the world because humanity — in the form of Adam and Eve — have brought it upon themselves, why is there so much evil? Why are children made to suffer in this world without having done anything wrong? For that matter, why should any humans suffer for the crimes committed by their ancestors? There may be good answers to these questions, but any responsible professor will have to acknowledge that the problem of evil may pose insurmountable difficulties to traditional theism. But how can the English professors at TWU propose such a possibility if they are committed to traditional Christianity “without reservation” as their statement of faith requires?
Let me put it another way. Imagine that you are a student and you have written a paper and received a low grade on it. You go to your professor and the following conversation ensues:
YOU: I believe I deserve a higher grade on this paper.
PROF: Okay. Why is that?
YOU: Well, that may be, but I felt inspired to write what I did. I really felt that God was speaking to me when I wrote that paper.
PROF: Hmm… that’s strange. Because I really felt that God was speaking to me and told me to give you an F.
YOU: But I have faith in this paper.
PROF: And I have faith in my red pen.
The above is absurd, of course, because there can be no resolution to this disagreement. How can you argue about belief when the only reason for the belief is the belief itself. The only real standard for university work must be the conventions of reasoned scholarship. Did the paper conform to the standards of the discipline? Did it cite appropriate evidence? Were its arguments logical? Was it clearly expressed?
A university based on traditional religion cannot claim to value any of these standards very highly since religion, as it is normally practiced, discounts evidence and reason in favour of the choice to believe, otherwise called faith. Faith, of course, is the right of the believer, and I will always defend the right of citizens of this country to believe what they choose and to express that belief. And I have no objection to any religious group setting up whatever schools or colleges they like (provided they are not funded with public money). But we should hold institutions called “university” to a higher standard.
Eventually, I think, the problem will solve itself. Religious universities will fade away as more and more people feel free to evaluate traditional religion with an even hand and find that, at its heart, its claims are nonsense. Christianity is very quickly going the way of Greek mythology, becoming a series of shared stories embodying potentially valuable lessons, but not an account of the world to be taken literally. Does anybody really believe that Noah saved all the animals of the world on the Ark? Or that Joshua made the sun stop in the sky? Most sensible Christians that I know are not dogmatic or evangelistic; but then, Milton would have considered them atheists. Even devoted academic Christians are fast becoming near-atheists, increasingly seeing the Bible as a series of metaphors and fables, and God as merely an underlying force, rather than a personal being.
No doubt a few old-fashioned die-hards will hang on for a while yet, maybe centuries yet, but the day will come when TWU’s statement of faith won’t matter a bit. Because no one in their right mind will sign it.
CAUT attacks Christian “faith test” for profs.
By most accounts, Trinity Western University, located in the Vancouver suburb Langley, is a respected member of the Canadian university community. It’s long enjoyed the rubber stamp of approval that is being a member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, an organization that fills the vacuum created by Canada’s lack of formal university accreditation. In 2004, the provincial government exempted the school from “detailed reviews of its degree programs,” making Trinity Western the fourth member of an elite club of west coast universities alongside the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University. In fact, having been opened in 1962, the school is one year older than UVic. Trinity Western is also home to three research chairs and boasts over $1 million in annual research funding, impressive for a relatively small institution.
Despite Trinity Western University’s (TWU) near universal acceptance as a full-fledged university, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)—a union of sorts, representing faculty associations across the county, that has fought sometimes controversial fights over academic freedom since 1951—placed TWU on its blacklist of universities that violate academic freedom in October, effectively calling into question the school’s dedication to the very heart of what it is to be a university. According to a CAUT report, because TWU—which describes itself as “a faith-based institution, one inspired by Christ’s life and guided by his teachings”—submits its faculty to what CAUT calls a “faith test,” it is violating academic freedom.
The controversial faith test consists of a “Statement of Faith” that professors are required to sign annually and that outlines the “philosophical framework to which all faculty, staff and administration are committed without reservation.” It includes a list of convictions to which professors must assert to subscribe, including belief in the bible, in one infinitely perfect god, that Jesus Christ was a real man, and in “the bodily resurrection of the dead; of the believer to everlasting blessedness and joy with the Lord, of the unbeliever to judgment and everlasting conscious punishment.”
To CAUT, the Statement of Faith clearly demonstrates that TWU does not accept the standard definition of academic freedom. They consider universities to have violated academic freedom if they “seek to ensure an ideologically or religiously homogeneous academic staff,” which clearly includes TWU.
James Turk, executive director of CAUT, says that his organization is only sharing with the world what TWU is, not outright denying their right to existence as a university. Yet, Jonathan Raymond, TWU president, is taking CAUT’s actions very seriously. “Such an allegation can easily damage the reputation of a university and place a cloud over the scholarship of its faculty,” Raymond wrote in a recent response to CAUT’s report.
The whole dispute comes down to the definition of a cornerstone of the modern university: academic freedom. In Raymond’s view, TWU’s definition is comfortably mainstream, and that it is possible to have investigation and teaching within the context of a stated perspective. The academic calendar at TWU goes so far as to reject a definition of academic freedom that denies an established perspective: “Trinity Western University rejects as incompatible with human nature and relevational theism a definition of academic freedom which arbitrarily and exclusively requires pluralism without commitment, denies the existence of any fixed points of reference, maximizes the quest for truth to the extent of assuming it is never knowable, and implies an absolute freedom from moral and religious responsibility to its community.” In other words, the university rejects relativism, which many academics would say is incompatible with the primary role of a university.