Academic freedom might seem like an ivory-tower concern. But Taylor University historian William C. Ringenberg links it to two central Christian emphases: truth and community. His latest book, The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom (Palgrave Macmillan), begins by rooting academic freedom in such virtues as honesty, humility, and love. Ringenberg then narrates the history of Western European and American higher education, with a focus on changing notions of academic freedom, before exploring case studies of academic-freedom challenges at Christian colleges. Elesha Coffman, assistant professor of history at Baylor University, spoke with Ringenberg about the mission of Christian higher education and its future prospects.

What does the mainstream academic community need to understand about Christian colleges?

Practically speaking, the secular community needs to understand the importance of the First Amendment protection of freedom of assembly. There’s a lot of talk about freedom of religion and freedom of speech, but freedom of assembly is just as vital. The Christian college experience is about gathering together and pursuing truth with people who don’t necessarily think alike on all things, but who share the conviction that God has come to us in Christ.

What misunderstandings about academic freedom exist at Christian colleges themselves?

Sometimes the notion of “academic freedom” makes us nervous, because we think in terms of unsympathetic outsiders. When the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) appeared in 1915, it had many secular impulses, but this was in part an understandable reaction against the power structure of the time, when Christians had almost total control of higher education. There wasn’t much of a hearing or an opportunity for a more secular approach to education.

Academic freedom, purely understood, is a very Christian idea. This doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t critique the biases of secular-minded people in the academy. The basic idea of academic freedom, though, is central both to learning and to the Christian faith.

For Christians, seeking truth is closely related to seeking God. The Bible tells us that God is light—a classic synonym for truth—and that God is love. We long to know this light and love, and to share them with others. Without them we feel lonely and incomplete. Academic freedom isn’t an end in itself, but a necessary condition for forging this connection with the God who made us in his image.

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Why should these discussions matter to the church at large?

We haven’t always done a good job of communicating how Christian colleges differ from churches. I don’t see them as conflicting, although sometimes it comes to that. I see their efforts as complementary.

The church proclaims the truth it has found, while the college assumes there is more truth to be found, and seeks it. The church teaches the faith and celebrates the Good News, while the college explores all of revelation, seeking the mind of the Author of all things. Sometimes people say that the church needs to be a watchdog on campus, but the influence should run both ways. The college can help the church see things more broadly. By exploring the edges, you can find new truths—or better-defined truths—and avoid narrow parochialism.

You assert that perfect academic freedom doesn’t exist anywhere, because every school has its own written and unwritten rules limiting what can be said, taught, and studied. Are there areas, though, where secular schools are ahead of religious schools? I’m thinking especially of gender, race, and ethnicity.

Actually, the most notable deficiency in Christian higher education has to do with due process in the area of faculty discipline and dismissal. There are good reasons for this. Administrators want to make sure their schools aren’t drifting in secular directions, as so many have in the past, and so they position themselves as watchdogs for the purity of the institution. But sometimes, in some places, professors’ academic freedom rights have suffered.

Has the desire for institutional purity fallen more harshly on women and minorities, as some asked during last year’s controversy at Wheaton College?

Particularly on race, Christian colleges are very sensitive. There are exceptions, of course. Race was a factor in the controversy at Wheaton College, although it was certainly more complicated than that. It was a factor at Calvin College several years ago, when a well-respected professor [Denise Isom] wasn’t willing to leave her African American Baptist church to join the Christian Reformed Church. Many at Calvin were pretty embarrassed, but the president felt he couldn’t make an exception.

But it’s usually the question of theological purity—often related to evolution or issues of sexuality—that matters most. Is a given position faithful to the Bible? It’s my hope that Christian colleges can emphasize the center . . . and then allow maximum difference of opinion on just about everything else. If you over-emphasize “purity” on secondary issues, you diminish the importance of the primary issues.

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Can the AAUP, even as a secular organization, offer any help?

The AAUP is a mixed bag. Some of its statements lack evenhandedness. Others have stated, or at least implied, that a commonly held Christian worldview is itself a violation of academic freedom. The AAUP tends to overemphasize academic freedom for individual professors, and underemphasize academic freedom as the institutional freedom to carve out a niche—to have a common approach to truth-seeking.

But for all these mixed feelings, the AAUP has been an essential watchdog for due process. In most of its censures of Christian colleges, has been at least plausible reason for concern about administrative heavy-handedness.

A good friend of mine thinks that every Christian college should have a faculty academic-freedom committee, so that faculty could weigh in alongside the administration. Another important idea would be for Christian college administrators to help educate trustees, as well as their church constituents, on the value of academic freedom within the context of the institutional mission. We’re all partial in understanding, we’re all still growing, and humility is among the virtues of scholarly life.

You state that academic freedom depends on “achieving a good fit between institution and scholar.” Where, though, is the line between “fit” and “conformity”? How can a school uphold its core identity and expand its horizons?

Christian colleges need more than just good scholars who are Christian. They need people who are fair-minded and intellectually charitable, so that students don’t feel like views are forced upon them. There should be a commitment to honestly and accurately presenting differing perspectives. There’s a tendency to give the best arguments for the view you espouse and the weakest arguments for the alternatives, but we must do better.

We can’t come across as fearful of other perspectives because we might lose our faith. “All truth is God’s truth,” as the Christian philosopher Arthur Holmes used to say. To seek truth is to seek God, and that’s what our institutions must be about.

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What is your outlook for Christian higher education in the years to come?

Well, there’s good new and bad news. The good news is that academically and financially, Christian colleges are the strongest they’ve been since the 1920s. But there are major concerns on multiple fronts: for instance, the sexuality and gender-identity debate, as well as the looming federal health-care mandate, with its call for coverage of abortion-inducing medications and procedures. But whether we’re talking about civil liberties versus religious freedom, or the same-sex issue, or academic freedom for professors versus academic freedom for institutions, we have more options than we think. Compromise isn’t necessarily a bad word. In our dealings with the government, I hope we can be as creative as possible in looking for win-win resolutions.

The greatest long-term danger for Christian higher education, though, is growing tuition costs. This is what presidents and trustees are most nervous about these days. Not everyone can afford the Wheatons and Taylors. Christian higher education is mostly a Cadillac product. We need to have more Ford and Chevrolet models, so that the Christian college experience is within reach for more students.

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The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom: Truth-Seeking in Community
The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom: Truth-Seeking in Community
Palgrave Macmillan
341 pp., 95.89
Buy The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom: Truth-Seeking in Community from Amazon