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In my opinion

CAUT versus Trinity Western

Academic freedom or statement of faith? They’re both right.

BY JOHN G. STACKHOUSE, JR. | JAN 11 2010

The Canadian Association of University Teachers recently commissioned an on-site investigation of Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. Professors William Bruneau and Thomas Friedman concluded that the policies of TWU contradicted the academic freedom policies of CAUT. Their report of some two-dozen pages was released in October 2009.

CAUT might have saved itself a lot of time and money by spending five minutes on TWU’s website. It states clearly that faculty members must attest to, and “investigate,” in accordance with the university’s statement of faith, a policy that is obviously incompatible with a statement of unqualified academic freedom such as CAUT’s. Still, the CAUT report raises a crucial issue that is not yet properly resolved.

Unqualified academic freedom is basic to the modern secular university. I won’t belabour this point since I cannot imagine readers of this magazine disagreeing with it. Where some might disagree, however, is on whether it also makes sense for a Canadian university to insist that its faculty members teach and research within the confines of its confessional statements.

Drs. Bruneau and Friedman claim in their report that academic freedom is foundational, not only to secular universities but to “the university community in Canada and internationally.” This is a curious claim in the light of the confessional nature of most Canadian universities before, say, 1950 and the acceptance of Christian universities of this sort in the United States to this day. It is also a hegemonic claim, insisting that there is only one way of pursuing legitimate university education.

As one who has been educated in and has taught at both kinds of institutions, I believe CAUT is right to champion academic freedom. I also aver that TWU is right to champion confessional education and scholarship.

It is a very good experience to learn, teach and research in the wide open spaces of the secular university. It is a very good experience to confront ideas alien to one’s own. And it is a very good experience to be free to think whatever one wants to think and then to say so without fear of institutional recrimination.

To be sure, anyone who has actually worked in a secular university for more than about two weeks recognizes that there are ideological pressures there, too: to conform to the preferences of one’s departmental superiors who will be deciding on one’s tenure and promotion, to the fads of one’s discipline and to the priorities of granting agencies. Still, however compromised academic freedom might be, it is an ideal to be cherished and protected.

At the same time, however, I want to urge my fellow Canadian scholars to leave a space for the alternative of a community of scholars that can take a number of basic assumptions for granted and go on together to analyze a wide range of important questions. The synergy that comes from such shared intellectual commitments is simply not to be found in the secular university.

It is an obvious and yet important trade-off: the exciting stimulation of radical plurality versus the reinforcing energy of coherent perspectives. Both are truly educational and both therefore deserve the support of the academy and the Canadian public.

Instead of conducting extensive investigations to prove the obvious, therefore, CAUT can instead helpfully expect from confessional schools clear statements of faith to which professors will duly subscribe but beyond which no one can be challenged for what they say – this would be a genuine, if qualified, academic freedom. They can expect clear policies of promotion and tenure that advance scholarly values and protect faculty members against the whims of administrators – while also protecting schools against irresponsible professors. And they can expect high academic standards such that these schools continue to deserve a place in the community of Canadian universities.

What CAUT cannot expect, however, is for confessional universities to act exactly like secular universities. Indeed, Drs. Bruneau and Friedman point favourably to the alternative of Canadian Christian colleges that do not insist on such confessional conformity, but their report does not demonstrate what makes them interestingly and substantially Christian. The two models represented by CAUT and TWU, however, do stand as two coherent options in Canadian higher education that deserve public support.

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  1. Al Hiebert / January 13, 2010 at 14:50

    Stackhouse makes great sense here. CAUT cannot rule the world with its unqualified academic freedom definition. It cannot even rule Canadian universities on this matter, no matter how fervently it is convinced that its unqualified academic freedom definition should rule in Canada and the world.

    What CAUT can do is discriminate against Canadian confessional universities by putting them in an unfavorable light, such as they cannot do for universities outside Canada. It’s sad to see how unpluralist CAUT is in this matter.

    We can hope that the CAUT visits to TWU and other confessional universities in Canada might yet lead to meaningful dialogue and review their narrow views in this matter.

  2. Jason West / January 20, 2010 at 13:44

    This is a refreshingly balanced article. Thanks for clarifying this issue in such a clear way. At the risk of being pedantic, as a professor at a Catholic Seminary I am a little puzzled at the editors choice to add a picture of a Rosary to an article on Trinity Western, they must be much more ecumenical than most evangelicals there.

  3. Daniel Reynolds / January 27, 2010 at 21:29

    Mr. West,

    You might be interested to know that students at Trinity Western University have the option to take, for credit, courses at Redeemer Pacific College (RPC), a Catholic institution. RPC professors partner with TWU professors on many fronts and both groups are part of an ecumenical dialogue group. It is not a surprise to learn that there is a similar-minded group for RPC and TWU students. This does not explain the editors’ choice, but I find it relevant.

  4. Marushka / January 27, 2010 at 21:36

    What an odd term .. confessional university. I must confess to WHAT in order to teach there? In order to attend there?

    “This is a curious claim in the light of the confessional nature of most Canadian universities before, say, 1950 and the acceptance of Christian universities of this sort in the United States to this day.”

    I suspect “the acceptance of US Christian universities in the US” is only by Christians. And life since the 1950s has changed ideas about reality as much as the enlightenment in the 1850s did.

    I hope that CAUT finds TWU’s hiring policy unacceptable, and takes away its university accreditation. Make it a Bible-college already.

  5. Chris / February 3, 2010 at 18:37

    The Catholic rosary graphic is a little out of place given that TWU was founded by Evangelical Free Churches of America.