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Academic Injustice and Shameful Cowardice

April 27, 2012

Over the last few months I had more reports of academics being let go by Christian-aligned academic institutions, and for what seem to be very minor differences of view on any one of a variety of relatively minor matters.  These are degree-granting institutions, supposedly committed to academic excellence (or so says their publicity), yet behaving in a paranoid manner toward their own academic staff, because on some matter arising from their scholarly work they say or write something that bothers some high administrator.

These are all also putatively Christian institutions (making as much of this in their publicity as well), which, if anything, actually makes this behavior even more troubling.  Typically, no due process, no hearing, no opportunity to explain or give warrants for the offending action, or to correct allegations made, no fair consideration of matters at all:  Just a dismissal.

And, as I’ve stated, in all the instances I’ve in mind (all of which concern biblical scholars), the offending matter was truly trivial:  Maybe the supposed date of a given biblical writing, maybe some judgement about the genre of a writing or passage, maybe the exegesis of a particular passage or set of passages.  No major doctrine called into question, no denial of any item of historic Christian faith, no moral lapse, no criticism of teaching effectiveness, just a charge of having stepped out of the party line on any one of a number of matters undifferentiated as to importance.

What kind of “academic” institution handles matters in such a disgracefully unfair, unreasonable and unreasoning, and dictatorial manner?  What kind of “Christian” institution is so narrow, so ungracious, so unkind, so Stalinesque as to handle things this way?  What does it say about the “faith” held, how nervous, uncertain, jittery, and reactionary it must be?  (As someone once said about such matters, “With ‘friends’ like these, Jesus doesn’t need enemies!”)

Often, of course, the institution will justify the action by saying that a constituency might be offended and put off from supporting the institution.  Or the administrator might have to answer their questions.  So, “Nothing personal, you understand; it’s just necessary for the institution/cause.”  So, this sort of cowardly behavior is defended by such a spurious justification.  As a confessing Christian myself, I’m deeply ashamed of such actions, and share the hurt and frustration of those affected by them.

I’m fortunate, I know, that the two main institutions in which my scholarly career has been spent (University of Manitoba and University of Edinburgh) are both places in which I’ve been free to pursue my research, write my conclusions, and not fear for my job from simply doing academic work.  I say that this sort of  “academic freedom” (as it’s called in the trade) actually gives most working academics an accompanying sense of responsibility too.  Trust does that, you know.

So, why do some Christian educational institutions treat their academic staff so harshly, in such a paranoidal manner, so much contrary to the sort of room for differences and diversity that the NT both reflects and in some places specifically summons.  E.g., has anyone in these institutions carefully pondered Ephesians 4:1-16?  The text calls for “patience and forebearing in love” to be exercised toward one another, maintaining “the unity of the Spirit” now (vv. 2-3), while awaiting the “unity of the faith” (v. 13), which is presented here as an eschatological event, not something that can be devised and enforced here and now.

The incidents that moved me to write this are shameful.  Maybe the administrators responsible will try to reassure themselves that they’ve avoided any questions from their boards or constituencies, or pacified such.  But Christians also profess that there is a higher judge to whom we will answer, and, to judge from the biblical testimony, I rather suspect that this judge is not so likely to approve the sort of actions I refer to here.  So, if these people ever ponder their actions, in the wee hours of the morning or in times of any honest prayer and reflection, I wonder how they justify their actions to that judge.  How do they account for their cowardice in ducking their responsibilities as academic leaders to help institutional boards and religious constituencies appreciate the work of academics, develop the confidence in their faith to allow a healthy investigation of matters, distinguish between central and peripheral matters, and above all to behave in a manner that reflects the Christ whom they profess?

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  1. Larry, I just saw this post, so I am a little late in my comments. You may recall my own conflict at a Christian institution that eventually led to my departure; although the reason I was let go was not specifically stated, I still believe my selection of a book for a course had something to do with this. I wrote about this at the time and the SBL posted my essay in their online journal.

    I am happy to say that I am employed at a public university, where there is no threat whatsoever.


  2. I think John Stackhouse has some excellent points above!

    Also – I suspect that in many cases these dismissed professors knew that they were stepping outside the confessional statements they signed (or assented to) when the got hired. Now – it is sad and for sure unfair how some professors are dismissed, but I suspect in many (most?) cases the administration has perfectly VALID reasons to do so based on their particular Christian traditions.

    In my opinion, at least some of the professors hired successfully ‘masked’ their doubts (and perhaps beliefs [I KNOW at least a specific case and I have no doubt that there are others!]) and got hired by an institution that did not really fit their theology. As they got further from that particular Christian tradition and become more vocal (perhaps to ‘reform’ and challenge the particular tradition), the break became inevitable.

    Let’s look at the other side. In many of these dismissal cases the fair thing might have been for the professor himself to RESIGN because his beliefs/stand changed and were no longer in line with the tradition of the school that he was serving (kind of like Wellhausen did)!

    • Dear Mr “evedyahu” (and I reiterate the plea that people use their names when engaging in polite conversation):
      Your suspicions and assertions remain that, uninformed by the cases about which I complain, and you’re entitled to them. I reiterate my plea that in any case, even where someone has offended, the process should be fair and reflect the values professed by the institution.

  3. Larry,

    I will take what you wrote at face value. But, without documentation, you must admit, I cannot act upon what you wrote.


    • I’m not sure what “act” you would contemplate. The action I called for were from Christian college/university administrators, who should ensure fair process and also should try to educate their boards and donors to appreciate the nature of academic life and work, learn to differentiate between core and peripheral concerns, and in all cases commit to act as Christians bound by what they profess.

    • I find myself wanting to pause a bit, as well. I often accuse people from the opposite side of the political spectrum (from me) of taking a couple of isolated incidents (however true they may be) and making it look as though a massive movement is afoot. While I generally trust Hurtado not to do that, since I hadn’t heard about these (unspecified, to boot) incidents before now, I need to make sure that I don’t become guilty of the same sin by spreading the word too hastily.

      • No massive movement mentioned in my posting, just a complaint about recurrent incidents of Christian institutions and leaders behaving badly in handling what they perceive as awkward staff cases.

  4. ConcernedOne permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,
    I do not know of the specific situations to which you refer, but you imply that they do not involve your personal involvement. Your post raises two questions that are conspicuously absent in the ensuing thread of replies. If indeed you practice the open discourse you advocate, would you please address the following:
    Can you in good conscience affirm that you have adequate information to confidently assign the accusations represented in the wordlist below? Shall we say, support equivalent or nearing that which you would accept in a student presentation. If you can honestly answer “yes,” I applaud your discretion.
    How in this post do you demonstrate “’patience and forebearing in love’ … exercised toward one another, maintaining ‘the unity of the Spirit’ now (vv. 2-3), while awaiting the ‘unity of the faith’ (v. 13)” — the words of Ephesians which you invoke?

    supposedly committed
    putatively Christian
    the offending matter was truly trivial
    disgracefully unfair
    ducking their responsibilities

    • Good interrogation! First, I stand by the complaint, wording included, as based on solid information. The incidents that prompted the posting are only the latest in many that go back over decades. Second, “forbearing in love” in Eph 4 seems to concern differences in beliefs (since what is held out is a future “unity of faith”). The NT advocate rebuke of an erring brother as precisely an exercise in Christian love. The “love” of brother in the NT means foremost to be concerned with the welfare of the other person, not some sentimental oozy stuff. Concerned with those I complained about as well as those who suffered under them, my posting identifies failings in fellow Christians, all the more serious as they are failings done consciously and with intent, and as acts of Christian institutions.

  5. Garet Robinson permalink

    Dr Hurtado, you have put forward an excellent piece. It truly is a problem across Christian higher education and needs to be plainly addressed. I concur with Dr Enns that fear is part of the motivation, and perhaps there is another.

    As a PhD candidate at a large evangelical institution in America I’ve seen several instances of good professors who have been released from gainful employment without any due process. In these instances it seems that fear is an undercurrent. However there is also a desire for control in an increasingly uncontrollable culture that drives many of these decisions. Administrators and institutional leaders seek to control the conversations and possible controversies by removing faculty, hopefully quietly, and keep the donations flowing. It is also control in the way that some leaders, both inside and outside these institutions, seek to keep their specific doctrinal perspectives pure and preserved. These leaders are convinced of their positions and any derivation from them is a direct threat to their control. By removing faculty at any whim (remember many Christian educational institutions are doing away with tenure) one can preserve their institutional control and continue to rely on a model of influence that served them well, though is certainly myopic. The justification for much of this is pure doctrine and pure Gospel, even on peripheral doctrinal issues.

    I hope this changes because we are better when we are free to discuss and disagree. Discussions and posts like this one give me hope. Grace and peace to you.

  6. Sara permalink

    This is not common at most American universities, Vaisamar. It’s something some Christian Universities get away with because they don’t have a union. Also, they already feel pressured in the world of academia to guard their orthodoxy.

    This kind of thing used to threaten academics in a lot of other universities too, but faculty unionized. Administrators were forced to tread transparently with dismissal cases. Now, sometimes faculty members who SHOULD be dismissed for incompetence never are.

    Unfortunately, the administrators of “Christian” universities tend to act like “mere men”. If so, then I think they should have the same safeguards as “mere men” and deal with unions. Lest the name of Christ me maligned by the world watching us, because of how we behave like them but say we have a higher path.

  7. Rachel Stone permalink

    At the festival of faith & writing at Calvin College, Marilynne Robinson said, “we live in a time when the claiming of religious identity has become more important than ABIDING in the truth of what that implies…” from the depths of my heart, I say “amen,” to that, and to this. Peace.

  8. Jeff Martin permalink

    Dr. Enns hits the nail on the head when he mentions fear as the main culprit. Dr. Hurtado, what are your reasons not to mention the institutions? I hope it is not fear. I believe by mentioning them people could contact them in a cordial way and note their disagreement or chagrin.

    I get frustrated by people always starting new institutions and churches because the old ones have some people there who do not do the right things, and people need to confront them to stop this from happening

    • Lea Parker permalink

      I believe that the institution Dr. Hurtado is referring to is Regent University, of which I am a student. For more information you can visit the facebook page “We Support the 8” at

  9. Kenny permalink

    Dare I humbly interject and note that history repeats itself all too often in these matters. The precedent of persecution of “wacky new thinking” is too often the initial response of the institution(s) which (ironically) in future years will ultimately embrace and then enshrine these same views held in contempt.

    Were it not for he human cost, it would be laughable that then history will repeat itself and what was radical becomes orthodox and then is defended with the same “conservative” dogma.

    Sadly in our rush to “guard that which was entrusted to us” we end up guarding a whole lot more that was never in the contract in the first place! We presume we understand it all and allow threats to our own presumptions to be misinterpreted as threats to truth.

  10. Deane permalink

    Do the degree-granting institutions in question have “statements of faith” or similar professions to which their “academic” staff must adhere? If so, as I suspect some may have, they could hardly be said to be “committed to academic excellence” in the first place. Can they properly be termed “academic” institutions if they refuse some possible conclusions of academic work from the outset? I don’t think so. The dismissal of those who think beyond the permissible boundaries merely confirms that some such institutions are mere farces of academia – and that the degrees they issue are not worth the paper on which they are written.

    • Deane, I think you’re being a bit simplistic. I see no problem in principle with institutions having fundamental commitments. “Secular” universities do: e.g., no sexual harrassment, abuse of university property, and various other terms of employment, including anti-racist views, etc. Christian higher education institutions must likewise maintain their religious identity and integrity. My plea is that they do so in a manner that reflects the Christian profession that they make. Let’s beware of fundamentalist-type anti-attitudes toward Christian faith!

      • Deane permalink

        But two wrongs don’t make a right.

        I firmly agree with Chomsky’s famous defence of the freedom of intellectual debate – including the freedom to air racist and other views considered ethically disgusting – as “simplistic” as you might count such a position. True intellectual debate can never have limitations agreed in advance, whether the “secular” or “Christian” limitations you mention. Conversely, to the extent that there are any such limitations, these institutions fail to be academic, and indeed compromise the entire endeavour. Some institutions fail in this regard to a greater extent than others, of course – such as those institutions which require faculty members to limit themselves to intellectual position which are rightly considered absurd (eg. esp. the profession of biblical inerrancy).

      • Your own view nothwithstanding, my own blog wasn’t directed against institutions having declared commitments, but about failure of due process and the sort of fairness that one should expect of any Christian institution. I also strongly feel that any religiously-oriented educational institution should be able to differentiate between core matters on which agreement is essential, and secondary matters on which there have been and are valid differences among Christians. I think now we’ve both had our say, so let’s draw the line here.

      • Let’s not play the game of ridiculous extremes. Historically, it is not difficult to identify those cardinal elements of faith that identify Christians. The Apostles Creed for instance.
        Second, in any case, any accusation of defection (for any matter, major or minor) should be handled in a manner that reflects the core values professed: fairness, opportunity to explain & answer accusations, an element of 3rd party judgment, etc.

      • Ian permalink

        “I also strongly feel that any religiously-oriented educational institution should be able to differentiate between core matters on which agreement is essential, and secondary matters on which there have been and are valid differences among Christians.”

        Are there any such ‘core’ matters that haven’t had ‘valid’ differences among Christians? A sizable minority of modern Christianity do not even hold a traditional theistic belief. Let alone a literal resurrection, and so on.

        Surely at the point where any institution says “your research must not conclude this…”, the research is irredeemably tainted.

        I understand you see these issues as minor, and therefore the dismissals are unfair, in comparison with disagreements which you would consider to be major enough for such treatment. But on what basis does anyone get to choose what is sufficient grounds for a rapid dismissal? Once you admit there is anything that is sufficient, who gets to draw the line, except the administration concerned?

  11. Isai Garcia permalink

    I wholeheartedly agree with this post. . . . much publicized cases . . . . [NB: names deleted by L.W. Hurtado] came to mind. This situation is very unfortunate. In my own school, where I did my undergraduate work, I know of a professor that had to halt an aspect of his doctoral research because he was afraid that if he continued his results would conflict with the the faith community he had in mind to seek employment with. Thank you for speaking out against this kind of injustice.

  12. Jan Barnes permalink

    As a wife of one of these victims…thank you Larry for stating this so well. In addition, both my husband and I attended Skoie church when you were there…You have a fond spot in our hearts.

  13. Larry, as one who has taught his whole career at Christian institutions, and writing on the blog of one who has not had that experience, I would say this post is a bit one-sided and unsympathetic to those institutions, not that there aren’t egregious failures.

    1. Most Christians institutions are private, so academic freedom is defined often as theological fidelity to the institution’s beliefs. If you think Christian colleges and seminaries abide by the university sense of academic freedom … well, they don’t.
    2. Said institutions more often than not were established to propound the theology expressed in that theological statement. Wandering from the statement of faith threatens mission. The mission is not simply academic exploration.
    3. Said institutions are always tuition- and gift-driven, and that means precariousness at times when it comes to survival. If some professor clearly wanders from the lines already drawn, then the financial viability of the school is under threat. Administrators etc know what is at stake. By the way, universities operate with this in reverse: some profs get so outside the norm that the school has to dismiss the professor. (A prof in Colorado, I think, comes to mind. He was a loony, but who says loony falls outside academic freedom?)

    Anyway, I have some suspicions of who you have in mind, and while I might agree with you in the main here, there’s more to this issue among Christians schools than — so it appears to me — you are acknowledging.

    • Dear Scot. First, I have taught at a couple of avowedly Christian institutions, and I have great sympathy for the idea of a Christian college/university, and great respect for the many that operate in a way that brings credit to the faith. I rather doubt that a careful reading of my post will yield any notion that it painted all Christian institutions with the same accusatory brush, Scot.
      Second, all that you say is true. I agree that Christian institutions have the right to maintain their religious integrity, including core faith-and-ethical commitments. But there are cases I know where issues not a part of the terms of employment, not clearly a feature of any faith-statement have led to the summary dismissal of academic staff.
      Third, private institutions are heavily dependent on tuition and private supporters, and these must be kept on board for the sake of the institution, no question. What I think is often missing, however, is for chief adminstrators to accept that their role is not simply to sweet talk donors and occasionally keep academic staff “in line” so that donors’ prejudices are not upset. Instead, or at least in addition, I think that Presidents and others such should also accept a responsibility to educate their supporters about the operations, nature and mission of an institution of higher education: about the nature of investigative scholarship (as a Christian mission/ministry), about debate being part of true Christian scholarship, about differentiating between core beliefs/values and secondary issues (that might for some have become “hot-button” issues, but are not indicative of historic Christian faith). Good Presidents and leaders of good Christian institutions likely do this, and students and staff should be grateful. Sadly, in some cases, it appears that some “leaders” limit themselves to being “enforcers” for certain knee-jerk attitudes.

  14. Dan Lovejoy permalink

    Do you hold out hope that by not mentioning the cases in question, the academics who have lost their jobs will be able to regain them? It seems to me that you are protecting the offending institutions. Shouldn’t such actions be brought to light?

  15. Michelle permalink

    I absolutely agree. I have watched many good men have just exactly what you are talking about happen to them. One being my father…who after 31 years at a Bible College was awarded the “care” that you speak of here. It is such a sad testimony. Thank you for your truthful words.

  16. Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    I know a number of Romanian ‘academic’ institutions, including the various evangelical traditions, that are guilty of this kind of ununacademic behaviour. A real pity. But we, at least, have the excuse of communist habits that die hard. I wonder what excuse can Western institutions evoque? I mean, except fundamentalism.

  17. Sivin Kit permalink

    Thank you for sharing this. You can probably imagine the potential self-censorship or walking on glass for academic scholars in Asia.

  18. Well the whole notion of academic freedom is a joke in most conservative or denominational seminaries in the US. Perhaps theological and perhaps salvific insecurity often lie under the surface of such notions?

    • Brian, again, expressions of sweeping prejudice tell us more about the person expressing it than the subject of the expression. Let’s try to avoid painting so broadly.

  19. Employment laws do exist for a reason, and for that reason many “Christian” institutions do not have tenure and explicitly have contracts that there is no legal requirement for them to renew and so can just be unrenewed without reason given. The lawyers do their jobs well; faculty associations are kept powerless unable to protest, making faculty more like ununionized workers who do what they are told. Given that I suspect I know one of those of whom Larry speaks, I will not give examples of institutions nor the name of the governance theory that is followed, but will note that while grace may be preached, law (human rather than Mosaic) is practiced, although many of the “standards” which “thou shalt not violate” are unwritten (e.g. “thou shalt not disagree with _____” or “thou shalt not rock the boat”). Of course, this is not unique to “Christian” institutions of higher education, for such institutions seem to follow the practices of churches and religious schools (which are often exempt from certain laws). It is just that we expect institutions of higher education to have, well, higher ethical and procedural standards and treat their faculty as . . . rational adults, rather than reflect the problematic standards of fearful and controlling schools (and churches) that are supposed to be dealing with children.

  20. Amen and amen Dr. Hurtado. There have been some disheartening events like the ones to which you allude. There needs to be more freedom and trust.

  21. John Stackhouse permalink

    Larry, you mention our former employer, the University of Manitoba, as a place in which you felt entirely free to say and write what you liked as a positive alternative to the cases you decry in this piece. I almost certainly would share your dismay about these negative cases, but I’ll enter two other points in the record.

    First, after you left Manitoba for Edinburgh, I was up for promotion to the rank of (full) professor. Long knives finally came out as certain members of our department were unhappy about my straightforward Christian identity, particularly as seen in the pages of the local newspaper in which I had been writing a column. I had already been asked once if I could stop identifying myself as a member of our department because of this discomfort. When I refused, since it was a silly request, then a senior member of the department badly compromised the process of selecting external referees and was reprimanded by the dean when I caught him doing it. His subterfuge nearly scuttled my application, but in the end the dean’s intervention kept the process on track. The external reviewers finally appointed–from Yale and Notre Dame universities–gave my record a strong endorsement and I was promoted. But I was promoted over the nasty objections of at least some members of our department who did not practice the respect for academic freedom you yourself enjoyed.

    Second, in the job I had before that, at a small Christian college in Iowa, I experienced the most dramatic protection of academic freedom of my career. I was a very junior, untenured professor of history when the board of our college decided to award honorary degrees to (at the time) Vice-President George H. W. Bush (who was running in the Iowa caucuses as presidential candidate) and, a year later, to pastor Robert “Hour of Power” Schuller. In both cases, I publicly protested, saying in the former instance that the college should not appear to be endorsing a particular candidate in the caucuses and in the latter that the college should not be approving someone whose writings were heretical by the standards of its sponsoring denomination, the Reformed Church in America.

    In both cases, I have been reliably informed, board members sought to have me fired. In both cases, the president of the college, Dr. James Bultman (now retiring from a successful presidency at Hope College, Michigan), educated his board on academic freedom and protected my job.

    These two points say nothing against your concerns, of course, Larry–concerns, as I say, that I share. I just thought it well to complicate the picture slightly with these two anecdotes.

    • Thanks, John. My complaints about the specific cases I mention were not meant at all to tarnish the excellent record of other, equally Christian, institutions such as the small Iowa college where you worked, where administrators do their job well. It actually supports my point: That it is unnecessary for some institutions to take the more cowardly and anti-academic low road exhibited in some sad cases.
      As to your experience at UM, you’ll agree that the attempt to thwart your promotion was unsuccessful, and precisely because senior administrators in the University caught it and were committed to fair academic procedure.

  22. Robrecht permalink

    Excellent post.

  23. Hi, Larry. With Peter Head, I’m wondering what specific cases you have in mind.

    • To protect those who have suffered the injustices in question, I’d rather not say.

  24. unklee permalink

    The christian world is changing. Things that would once have been unthinkable are now being thought and done. Some changes are not good, but some are freeing and (I believe) from God – the breaking down of denominational walls, a willingness by many christians to tolerate less orthodox beliefs and practices, a questioning of many traditional christian taboos, and the impact of scholarship on our beliefs about the Bible.

    Those who defend the old ways, for good or ill, may well fear this future. And may well be reacting the only way they know to hold together their christian edifice that is slowly crumbling. That wouldn’t justify their behaviour, but it may explain it.

    • Dear “unklee”, you may be right, but I don’t think that the sort of generalizations that you offer are necessary or particularly relevant to these cases. Such unfair behavior as I refer to goes back much farther than the present circumstances. Under any circumstances, Christians should be expected to exhibit the kind of behavior that the NT passages I mention advocate. I offer no social excuses for cowardice and unfairness.

  25. petermhead permalink

    Thanks Larry, I absolutely agree. Thanks for all the details. No cowardice here.

  26. John Percival permalink

    I’m young and naive. But I can’t help wondering if hearing the other side of the story might shed some light on what appears to be such a patently unfair and frankly illegal practice. Employment law exists for a reason.

    • John, two responses to your very reasonable comment: First, employment law varies from one country to another (and in the US from one state to another), and courts (esp. in the USA) have been reluctant to intrude into the employment practices of religious institutions. This is so esp. if the terms of employment at appointment to a post state that employment is at the pleasure of the administration and that terms of employment can be interpreted unilaterally by the administration.
      Second, if any of administrators of relevant academic institutions would like to comment in response to my blog-post in justification and explanation, or clarification/correction, they’re more than welcome to do so.

  27. Reblogged this on Methoughts, mefeats and medefeats and commented:
    I am surprised that academic institutions in the West can dismiss their faculty so offhandedly. Sad and scandalous at the same time.

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