Battle of Wills and Faith

Members of small, conservative denomination move to assert control over Erskine College, leaving many professors scared -- and some subject to repeated online attacks.
March 1, 2010

Some religious colleges require all faculty members to share the faith of the sponsoring denomination. That wouldn't work at Erskine College, a small liberal arts institution in Due West, S.C.

Erskine is part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which describes itself as conservative and evangelical -- well to the right, on political and social issues, of other Presbyterian churches. The ARP (as members call it) is also small, with only 250 churches, so a requirement that all faculty or students at its only college be church members wouldn't yield enough people qualified to enroll or teach. The college has required all faculty members to be Christians, and students of all faiths have been welcome -- with only a minority of students and faculty members coming from the ARP.

This week, however, church leaders will gather to discuss a special report they commissioned about Erskine, which has been well regarded academically for its liberal arts programs, but which critics fear has strayed from its founding faith. The report has not been finalized or formally released, but some faculty members have seen it, as have some outside the college. The report is seemingly most critical of the church leaders themselves, saying that they have been "negligent" in overseeing the college. But the reasons given for why this negligence is faulted have many faculty members scared.

The report says that the college is hurt by "irreconcilable and competing visions." With a presidential search going on, the report says that the church "must speak clearly" on its interests in the direction of the college, that the board must operate more independently of the administration, and that there must no longer be doubt about the church running the college.

"The ARP Church has invested millions of the Lord’s dollars and countless man-hours in its educational ministry at the college and seminary. We would be poor stewards of these funds, as well as of the legacy of our fathers and mothers in the faith, if we were to refuse to help Erskine fulfill the missions envisioned in the documents we have produced and adopted as a Synod and in the institution’s own mission statements," says the report, a copy of which was provided to Inside Higher Ed.

While the report has a polite tone, and praises the dedication of the college's leaders and faculty, its repeated references to the "irreconcilable" philosophical views about Erskine and the "untenable situation" in which the college finds itself have many faculty members worried that hard-liners are aiming for a purge.

Some faculty members have already been subject to repeated online attacks on blogs run by those who want more church control -- and other professors are fearful of ending up as targets. Many faculty members either would not return calls to talk about the situation or said simply that while they wanted people to know what was going on, they were too scared about their own jobs to talk. Others said that they feared that the college was in danger of losing its ability either to teach certain subjects (evolution, for example) or to promote certain approaches to education (critical thinking).

Fears of a Purge

"There are elements of the church that want to purge the college and church of everyone who doesn't think as they do," said William Crenshaw, a tenured faculty member in English who has taught at Erskine since 1976. Crenshaw said he has loved teaching at the college because of the close relationships between faculty members and the 600 or so students -- a size that makes education personal. The college values teaching over publication, he said, and that's the kind of environment he wanted.

In recent years, Crenshaw said, some parents, students and church members have questioned his fitness for his job. "I've always been outspoken and I'm overt about the role of critical thinking," he said. In teaching freshmen about logic and writing, he said he relies on current events, sharing articles to prompt students.

He said he never would punish a student with a poor grade for making an argument he disagrees with, but that he challenges the students on whether they have backed up their views. When students say that they can date the creation of the earth and explain nature citing the Bible alone (ARP doctrine backs biblical inerrancy), Crenshaw said he asks questions and challenges them.

While he said he respects their right to have whatever views they want, he said he believes it is a professor's obligation to teach critical thinking skills and to let students know that there are those who disagree with them. He said he does not believe asking questions of students disrespects them or the college's faith. "We can't put dogma before questioning and still be an educational institution," he said.

He sees the church commission siding with those who attack him for the way he has taught. "I think there will be an attempt to make sure that all professors at the college are doctrinally pure," he said. (While Crenshaw appears to be the most outspoken among faculty members concerned about the current situation at the college, several professors who declined to talk said he had the most accurate assessment of the situation and had the guts to say what they believed, but were unwilling to be quoted saying.)

Crenshaw has been cited repeatedly in blogs for not being true to church teachings. Students Aligned for a Faithful Erskine (known as SAFE) is a group that has organized criticism of Crenshaw and others. In one letter sent to church leaders, a SAFE member cited as evidence the experiences of unnamed students. One is said to have arrived at the college, befriended other evangelical Christians, and taken a course with Crenshaw, thinking the professor was "out of his mind."

But after getting "involved in the history department," the student started to see the Bible as unreliable, took another course with Crenshaw, "loved him and took to heart of all his biases," and the "student's identity now resides in the next political controversy, not in Christ." Another letter cites Crenshaw as "the most extreme example" of faculty members who "openly oppose or evade the integration of Christian faith with learning."

In response to the letters at SAFE and elsewhere, other students and alumni created a Web site called Erskine for Everyone that features long letters about the impact Crenshaw and other attacked faculty members had on their intellectual development. Letters talk of his commitment to helping students through tough times and holding them to high standards.

Others suggest that Crenshaw was doing his job by questioning just about everything students say and forcing them to defend themselves. One alumna wrote: "If a student loses his faith over these discussions, this certainly cannot be blamed on Dr. Crenshaw. I say this because, outside the Erskine Bubble in the real world, people ask questions about God all the time. If Erskine College promotes evangelical Christianity, should her students not be able to deal with questions of faith and the Bible? Billions of people worldwide want to know why we believe what we believe. If we cannot answer a simple question in a classroom without losing faith, how can we be expected to face the world?"

Other faculty members have had to defend themselves before investigative committees because of student complaints. For instance, Richard Burnett, a professor of systematic theology at Erskine's seminary, has faced a series of inquiries following a complaint by a student that one of his courses featured the ideas of the noted theologian Karl Barth and that those ideas suggested a lack of complete commitment to biblical inerrancy.

Burnett did not respond to inquiries from Inside Higher Ed. But the professor's Web site features a series of letters to and from him about these complaints. The letters, which detail his views on numerous theological views, suggest that he in fact does agree with church teachings, but prefers more nuanced forms of discussion than Yes/No answers.

'Aiding the Enemy'

One ARP leader (and former Erskine board member) who has repeatedly criticized Crenshaw, Burnett and other faculty members is the Rev. Charles Wilson, who publishes ARP Talk, which calls for more church control of the college. An "extra edition" of the publication last month revealed that the seminary was admitting some students who are Jewish, Mormon or Muslim, and denounced this development, saying: "This is not engaging the culture! This is aiding the enemy!"

Wilson, in an interview, said that "there is a war taking place over the heart and soul" of the college because conservative church members want to be sure that the college reflects their values. The college "should reflect who we are," he said.

Before agreeing to answer questions, Wilson said he needed to know this journalist's religion (Jewish) and he then cited that to explain the frustration of ARP faithful with many Erskine faculty members. "At this point, I'd say that the difference between the college and the ARP is probably as far, theologically, as the difference between you and me," he said. Asked if he was charging that the faculty members aren't really Christian, as they are required to be by the college, he said Yes, adding "and that's a pretty serious accusation."

Wilson noted that the church built the college and that the college is a unit of the church, not the other way around, and that the faculty were not showing respect. "I wouldn't go to your house and bring pork barbecue," he said. But that was the equivalent, he said, of what many faculty members do to the church.

The college's faculty, he said, should all be committed to teachings infused with the ARP faith and that means, for example, that evolution should not be taught as an explanation for how humans came to be.

How much Wilson's views reflect those of the church's leaders is a matter of much speculation. His Web site states clearly that it is not an official church publication. And the tone of the church's special report on Erskine avoids the rhetoric and tone found on Wilson's site. The church isn't speaking officially on the matter until after its leadership gathers and the college's administration also is not speaking. Some observers believe that Wilson's views (if not his tone) do reflect the church's thinking, while others are hopeful that they do not.

Bradley Christie, a professor of English who is chair of the faculty, said that many faculty members are indeed concerned about the impact of the report on the college's direction. But Christie said that he has always felt that "the boundaries were pretty clear" and that there were "built-in safeguards," such as regional accrediting, that should protect faculty rights. "Academic freedom is always an issue in situations like this, but so far we haven't had the kind of pressure or the kind of contention some other schools have had." He added that "we are not a Bible college."

Faculty members, he said, would welcome an effort by the board to attract more resources to the college, and welcome ideas from the board and the church. But as to the report's suggestion that the faculty are in need of much more guidance, he said that "faculty never feel that way anywhere."

Robert J.F. Elsner, an associate professor of psychology, said he too has heard much concern about the church's review of the college, but "the reality is that none of us knows what's going to happen and other colleges have gone through this and have not fallen down or lost their academic standing." He said he hoped that this process would be "an opportunity" to improve the college, but not "in the sense of being told what to do."

To date, he said, he has admired the environment at Erskine. "There are few colleges that are truly Christian colleges that have the level of academic freedom that we do, but we are the educational mission of a very conservative evangelical church," he said.

Another professor, who agreed that there has been academic freedom at the college in the past, said he saw the review and the organized activities of faculty critics as a campaign to severely limit academic freedom. And he said that this campaign was not in fact coming from people who really understand church teachings, but from those who think they do.

"They are not traditionalists. I'm a traditionalist. They are extremists," said this professor, who asked for anonymity out of fear he could be fired for his criticisms. "I am not sure what they want except control." He said he feared that the changes would create "intellectual ghettoization, cut us off further from mainstream Christian scholarship, and isolate us from the vast majority of Christians and Christian churches in our area."

When the Tensions 'Pop Out'

Samuel Schuman, a retired college president whose new book is Seeing the Light: Religious Colleges in the 21st Century (Johns Hopkins University Press), said he wasn't aware of the situation at Erskine, but that these types of tensions are "pervasive, and in some places they are kept under calm control, and in other cases, they pop out."

Schuman, whose book praises the educational experience at many religious colleges, said that they sometimes experience "a values collision," in that "those who are not affiliated with a denomination don't see preservation of the strong denominational identity" as crucial and "don't understand why more traditional academic values aren't prevailing."

These tensions may be particularly divisive, he said, when denominations are small and there are relatively few educational institutions affiliated with the faith, as is the case with Erskine and the ARP. "There is less concern in large denominations about threats to denominational integrity," he said. "If there are only a couple of you, you tend to be more stiff-willed."


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