Tenure, Race, Academic Freedom, and Religion

Addressing matters of faculty, academic voice, tenure, and promotion has long been an interest of this blog; I do believe that good schools — be it a university, boarding, or day school can be measured in status by the intellectual freedom and voice permitted on its campus. Honestly, it is what separates elite schools from lower tier schools. Often times schools want to break into the top tier of schools not realizing that it is a collection of elite “type” faculty members that makes a school … as well as a healthy endowment and good students. The promotion of ideas and a democratic campus in which decisions are made by committee or faculty drives status and promotes a true learning community. With that in mind, I would love to get your thoughts on the story below. I suspect at times many schools are happy with comfort and pleasing a few versus really being different and elite. Most do not realize that they subscribe to this status…. I know from my workings and conversations with a number of school leaders.

Calvin College’s board has denied the request of an African American professor to worship at a Baptist church. If Denise Isom continues to attend her primarily African American congregation, Messiah Missionary Baptist, she will be taken off tenure track and given a one-year term to end after the 2008-2009 school year.

Faculty members at Calvin are required to be members of a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) or a church in “ecclesiastical fellowship” with the denomination. Isom, an assistant professor of education, was aware of the rule when she joined Calvin in 2003, but believed she could apply for an exception. Calvin, which has a student body that is 94 percent white, has previously granted exceptions, usually to faculty members whose spouses are ordained in another denomination.

Isom spent several years visiting some of the more than 100 CRC congregations in the Grand Rapids area. While several CRC churches are beginning to reach out to the African American community, none are “there” yet, Isom wrote in her request. “I need a place of worship that is already consistent with my culture and able to grapple with issues of race in ways which make it a respite, a re-charging and growing place for me, as opposed to another location where I must ‘work’ and where I am ‘other.’”

Calvin’s board decided that upholding the school’s denominational requirement was necessary for Calvin to remain a Reformed institution. “Nearly all Christian colleges and universities that distanced themselves from their founding denominations and theological traditions eventually also drifted away from being Christian in any meaningful way,” Bastian Knoppers, chair of the Calvin College board of trustees, wrote in a statement.

Shirley Hoogstra, vice president for student life at Calvin, which has 4,200 students, said the college’s leadership is discussing a solution to the problem. No decisions have been made yet, however. Provost Claudia Beversluis also said the board would move up its scheduled 2009 review of faculty requirements, but she didn’t know if any change would come soon enough to help Isom.

The Isom decision sparked heated discussions and a staff and student prayer vigil at Calvin, with many wondering how the school can reach out to diverse communities while remaining rooted in the historically Dutch CRC.

“Diversity is still relatively new to Christian universities,” said Pete Menjares, associate provost of diversity leadership at Biola University. “We are still figuring out how to do this.”

On predominantly white campuses, Menjares said, support structures such as home, family, and church become even more important to minority faculty and students. “Our colleges still very much reflect our churches, which are monocultural,” he said.

While diversity is a worthy goal, universities should keep it in perspective, said John Bowling, president of Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois.

“Any Christian college or university has an obligation to remain loyal to its core values and constituencies and to maintain theological coherence,” Bowling said. “To override those commitments could be a disservice to the university in the long run.”

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2 thoughts on “Tenure, Race, Academic Freedom, and Religion

  1. Is that why HCHS isn’t considered isn’t considered an “elite” school?
    It doesn’t promote democratic ideals, that’s for sure.

    Woops, am I allowed to say that?!

  2. This is always the danger of association with schools that subscribe to a particular view, secular or religious. In the end, asking people to be the same is the last thing you want in an educational setting. What does that tell students about the world. We teach them to think “outside of the box” but we want to place them in a community that does not live up to that billing. Yes it is a dangerous and sad state about our world.

    Jonathan — interesting point. Why do you say such a thing? Better yet, it is best that we do not hijack this blog for our own purposes. I am lucky in that m school setting allows a rich and diverse setting. Much like caron’s class, my colleagues hold true to the seminar method of instruction in that we believe in non conformity. I am also lucky in that my colleagues and students are very diverse. My office mate is a Reagan conservative while my chair is a die hard liberal. Obama is not liberal enough for him. We promote a number of different views and my admin allows for this. It is what we were founded on. That does not sound like it is the case of Calvin College. The have that right to uphold its mission. I do think that over time schools must reevaluate its mission and ask if it really upholds democratic values. Again, i am lucky.

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