Faith, Science and Academic Freedom

AAUP issues reports criticizing two religious colleges -- one that set limits on teaching by biologist who believes in evolution, and one that fired a professor who tried to preserve traditional theology.
January 15, 2009

In two cases involving matters of both religious faith and due process, the American Association of University Professors has released reports charging that colleges have violated the academic freedom of professors.

In one report, the association finds that Illinois's Olivet Nazarene University is violating the rights of a professor who believes in evolution by barring him from teaching an entry-level biology course that he taught for years, and by banning the use in the curriculum of a book he wrote arguing that people of faith can still believe in evolution. In the other report, the association finds that Cedarville University, in Ohio, inappropriately fired a professor who argued that the institution was moving away from its theological roots.

In both cases, the professors are alumni of the institutions involved, and say that they want to continue to teach and serve the colleges. And the professors praise the reports -- while the universities suggest that they contain errors and are unfair.

Trying to Reconcile God and Evolution

The dispute at Olivet Nazarene involves Richard Colling, who has spent the last 28 years teaching there, attracting fans among students and colleagues for his beginning and advanced biology courses. He was popular with administrators, too, until he wrote a book in 2004 in which he attempted to argue that one could simultaneously believe in God and evolution. The book, Random Designer, states that one can believe that God created the universe, and in so doing created the systems that would evolve into everything that exists today. Colling acknowledges that it is not possible to believe in evolution and to also believe literally in the Bible story of the creation of the world in six days, but argues that this need not diminish the moral force of the Bible or belief in God.

As a biologist, Colling said that he thinks there is simply no argument that rebuts evolution, and that the evidence is overwhelming. He was inspired to write the book in part by teaching religious students who felt that they had to either follow a path of secular science or of belief in their faith. Colling writes that this choice isn't necessary. Colling is hardly the only person to believe in God but not the literal truth of the Bible.

But that concept hasn't gone over well at Olivet Nazarene. There, the official Statement of Faith outlines truth in this way: "The Old Testament and the New Testament Scriptures, given by plenary inspiration, contain all truth necessary to faith and Christian living."

After Colling's book appeared, some conservative Nazarene churches told university officials that he should be fired. At first, university leaders defended Colling -- and he has praised them for doing so. But as the opposition increased, Olivet Nazarene barred him from teaching the general biology course, and barred anyone at the college from teaching from his book. Colling, who has tenure, continues to teach, but only small upper division courses that don't involve his book.

An investigation by the AAUP found that the university violated Colling's academic freedom by barring him from teaching a course he had successfully taught without any "demonstrated cause" or faculty role in the decision. The association noted that the university has refused to alter these decisions even after appeals from Colling's department and the faculty grievance committee.

"The administration of Olivet Nazarene University curtailed the academic freedom of Professor Colling in order to dampen controversy that had arisen among anti-evolutionist elements of the university’s church constituency," the report says. "In thus acting, the administration placed a higher value on what the president called 'constituent relations' than on the principles of academic freedom to which the university itself claims to subscribe."

Olivet Nazarene officials didn't have a response on Wednesday. But the AAUP sends draft versions of reports to universities and then adds in notes on the institutional view. In this case, the report quotes Gregg Chenoweth, vice president for academic affairs, as noting that Colling remains a tenured faculty member, with full salary and benefits. Chenoweth's statement goes on to say that Colling benefits from "years of documentable public, private, internal, and external advocacy" by university officials and questioned how anyone could say that his "academic freedom has been abridged."

Colling, in an interview Wednesday, said it was shocking to him that a university administrator could not see the violation of academic freedom in banning a professor from teaching a certain course or barring a book from being taught in classes. (Colling's book is permitted on campus provided that it isn't taught.)

A Defender of Tradition Is Ousted

At Cedarville, a Baptist university, David Hoffeditz was among a group of "traditionalist" faculty whom the AAUP found were criticized by university leaders for opposing apparent changes in religious thinking at the institution. Hoffeditz taught courses on the Bible at Cedarville and also served as associate pastor of a church. He also was tenured.

Because Hoffeditz is suing the university for his job, he said in an interview that he couldn't directly describe the events that led to his firing, but he praised the thoroughness of the AAUP report and didn't identify any errors in it. According to the report, Hoffeditz was fired after dissenting on the work of a faculty committee trying to better define institutional beliefs on truth and certainty. He wasn't alone in his views, the AAUP found. Much to the distress of administrators and trustees, many students and some faculty colleagues shared his view that the university appeared to be moving away from its roots in its definitions of truth. The opposition may have been particularly unwelcome because university officials had indicated the existence of consensus among the faculty on the revised statements.

Despite his tenure, Hoffeditz was fired for -- the university said -- failure to “maintain consistent, biblically appropriate, spiritual interest and effective Christian relationships in the university family.” The university also said that he had "made statements to students expressing [his] disagreement with established school policy and the judgment of the senior administration in spiritual matters, and when confronted ... defended [his] absolute ‘right’ to do so”; and that he had "made statements and exhibited behavior that does not demonstrate Christian love and objectivity in the professional judgment of colleagues."

The AAUP inquiry found numerous problems with the way Hoffeditz was treated. For example, it found that he was dismissed without any "demonstrated cause" or review by a designated faculty body; that he was denied the right of appeal to university trustees; that he was denied evidence or access to witnesses against him; that he was told that he had the burden of proof in the matter; and that materials in his case were seized, making a complete review of the case difficult.

The problems at Cedarville extend beyond this case, the report found, to the lack of protections that would prevent treatment like Hoffeditz experienced. "The absence of meaningful shared governance under the current administration at Cedarville University, combined with the administration’s bypassing of established channels of academic decision making, and the lack of procedural safeguards against dismissal, has resulted in a sense of insecurity and mistrust among the faculty that is inimical to academic freedom," the report concludes.

Cedarville issued a statement Wednesday blasting the AAUP report as "a prime example of a flawed document that does not contribute in any constructive matter to a sensitive and difficult issue."

The university statement said: "The AAUP report was developed by the AAUP using a fatally flawed process, designed to preserve pre-determined conclusions consistent with the AAUP's historical bias against religious schools. When Cedarville was first provided with a draft of the report by the AAUP last fall, it was immediately apparent that the report was so riddled with error that a meaningful response was not possible." While the university said it pointed out some mistakes, "the scurrilous conclusions of the report which depended upon the original misstatements of fact, were not modified in any substantive way."

The Cedarville statement did not detail all of the errors the institution believes exist in the report, but said that the university would issue a more detailed response later.

Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the AAUP, said in an interview that Cedarville had indicated that it believed that the draft had many errors, but that the university had never identified them.

As to the charge of anti-religious bias, Kreiser said that the AAUP investigates these cases at religious colleges not because it seeks them out but because "faculty members file complaints."


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