A Dissenter Is Fired

Tenure, teaching awards and help from AAUP don't save job of Erskine professor who offends religious traditionalists.
September 8, 2011

On Tuesday, the American Association of University Professors wrote to Erskine College, expressing worry about the treatment of William Crenshaw, an English professor who has been among the most outspoken critics of the role of religious conservatives in shaping the direction of the institution. While the AAUP didn't weigh in on the disputes over Erskine, it said that Crenshaw never should have been suspended and barred from teaching -- as he recently had been -- unless he met the college handbook's requirement of causing "immediate harm" by his presence.

On Wednesday, Erskine fired Crenshaw, who had taught at the college for 35 years, earning tenure, an endowed chair and teaching awards, and attracting devoted students and alumni. Religious traditionalists have been pushing for years for Crenshaw's ouster. Some of the documents about the case suggest that officials at the college argue that Crenshaw -- with his criticisms of the college -- discouraged potential students from enrolling at Erskine. He says this is inaccurate.

The firing is the latest escalation in an increasingly intense fight over the future of the college. The disputes have led to court battles. And in contrast to the fights of the last two years, Crenshaw won't be on campus anymore to participate. According to various letters between Crenshaw and college officials, he was willing to negotiate a retirement deal, but balked at any arrangement that would have required him to stop speaking out about the college.

Erskine, in South Carolina, is part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, a small denomination that describes itself as conservative and evangelical. For most of his career at Erskine, Crenshaw and other faculty members of a variety of faiths (the denomination is too small to have only its members teach at the college) juggled the responsibilities and sometimes the tensions of providing a liberal arts education in a religious community. Crenshaw developed a reputation as someone who questioned assumptions (even religious assumptions), which he said over the years was a way to build up students' reasoning and logic skills, not to denigrate anyone's faith.

But while many alumni have rallied behind Crenshaw, traditionalists in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church have made him a target, and they have been rejoicing over word that he had been suspended from teaching. ARP Talk, a blog that has criticized the college for not being strict enough on issues of faith, has repeatedly called for his ouster. "Crenshaw Is GONE!" reads a headline from last week about his suspension.

Of late, that blog and other church traditionalists have particularly attacked Crenshaw because the professor has come to the defense of science instruction that is not based on the Bible alone. On a private Facebook group run by alumni who want to maintain the college's independence, Crenshaw recently participated in a discussion about what qualities he would like to see at the college. His statements about the teaching of science infuriated ARP Talk and its readers.

Crenshaw's comments (which he confirmed to Inside Higher Ed as accurate) include the following: "Science is the litmus test on the validity of the educational enterprise. If a school teaches real science, it’s a pretty safe bet that all other departments are sound. If it teaches bogus science, everything else is suspect.... I want a real college, not one that rejects facts, knowledge, and understanding because they conflict with a narrow religious belief. Any college that lets theology trump fact is not a college; it is an institution of indoctrination. It teaches lies. Colleges do not teach lies. Period."

Such views wouldn't shock many academics, but the official position of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is that the Bible is inerrant and thus explains such issues as creation in ways that should be accepted.

The ARP Talk blog called Crenshaw's comments on science evidence that he is "functionally an atheist who, in his rabid, secular fundamentalism, preaches his views with as much vigor and determination as an old-time Methodist revivalist of 100 years ago." The blog added that Crenshaw was "an evangelist of infidelity" and said that he encourages students to question faith with "his secular brain-dribble."

Cliff Smith, a spokesman for the college, said he was "pretty limited" in what he could say about Crenshaw, given that this was "an ongoing personnel matter." He said that the college was committed to protecting the confidentiality rights of Crenshaw and others. He also said that administrators at Erskine see that this is "a difficult and sad situation, and we understand that people who don't have a full view would be confused and/or angered by it."

The AAUP letter pressed the college on the issue of academic freedom, noting that administrators have said that Crenshaw has engaged in "disloyal" online speech, and that Crenshaw has said that the college violates principles of academic freedom. Suspending such a professor, when he poses no danger, the AAUP writes, "will clearly do nothing to prevent further such expressions" of doubts about academic freedom at Erskine.

Smith said that the college's leaders would respond later to the AAUP letter. But he said that its emphasis on the faculty handbook statement about suspending tenured faculty members only when "immediate harm" is likely was incorrect. "The AAUP interpretation seems to be limited to physical harm," Smith said. "I think we would maintain that there was the very real threat of harm to the institution, but we don't want to argue with the AAUP."


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