Faith And Freedom

September 2010

Canada -- a country with a tradition of academic freedom and strong faculty unions -- is having a major debate over what academic freedom is and who should define it.

Christian Higher Education Canada has announced that it is organizing meetings to bring together faculty members and administrators from a range of institutions to discuss and, maybe, define academic freedom. The group's announcement comes as the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the largest faculty association in the country and a union as well, has moved to investigate colleges that require statements of faith -- pledges of shared belief, frequently accompanied by a code of conduct -- as a condition of employment.

The Association has announced that it will create a list of institutions that require the statements, and that the association doesn't consider them worthy of the name "university." And, prompted in part by the debate, the association that represents all of Canada's colleges -- the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada -- is now revising its statement of academic freedom.

To faculty leaders, the move by CAUT (the national faculty association) is simply a matter of standing by principles. "We don't believe that a person's ideology or faith should be a condition of hiring or of continuing appointment -- whether it is Marxism or fundamentalist Protestantism," said James Turk, executive director of the association. "Nothing that calls itself a university should have a faith test. That's just not acceptable."

Turk added, however, that he's surprised that Christian colleges are offended, given that those with statements of faith don't hide them. "We are advertising only what they proudly proclaim," he said.

Al Hiebert, executive director of Christian Higher Education Canada (which represents 33 colleges and universities of various Protestant denominations, all with statements of faith), said that the faculty group's actions made his members realize that there was a problem in the way academic freedom is being defined. "Our concern is that it is irresponsible for any one organization to define academic freedom for all of Canada," he said. "And it is irresponsible for any one organization to define the meaning of a university for all of Canada."

Statements of faith are common at Christian colleges and universities, although the actual statements vary widely in their specificity. In the United States, the American Association of University Professors has policies that would normally bar colleges from judging job applicants or employees based on their beliefs, but the association exempts religious colleges in some respects and does not consider a statement of faith as grounds for censure, nor does it investigate colleges simply because they have such a statement. The association does expect the statements to be publicly available so that a job candidate or faculty member would not apply or be hired -- only to subsequently find out about belief expectations.

Turk, of the Canadian faculty group, said that his association believes that the same nondiscriminatory standard should apply to all beliefs. Of statements of faith, he said that "these are requirements we would never tolerate in any other way." He also argues that it is possible for colleges to maintain religious identity without statements of faith, offering as examples Canada's Roman Catholic colleges and universities. Like their American counterparts, they do not require statements of faith and regularly hire (and educate) people who do not share their beliefs. (Turk said he is not bothered by Catholic or other religious colleges hiring only clergy or only members of their faith as president, but sees faculty jobs as being in a different category.)

To date, CAUT has placed one institution -- Trinity Western University -- on its list of institutions with inappropriate statements of faith. The association has finished investigations (but not yet published the results) on two others -- Canadian Mennonite University and Crandall University. And CAUT is about to start an inquiry into Redeemer University. Because these institutions all have statements of faith the CAUT is expected eventually to have all, the Christian colleges on its list of unacceptable institutions. Trinity Western responded to the association's report on its policies with its own report criticizing the faculty group.

Hiebert, of the Christian colleges, said that the idea that one after another of the institutions would be investigated and criticized was part of the motivation for calling for new definitions of academic freedom. He said that his association and its members back the definition of academic freedom that has been the policy of the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (which includes Christian colleges among its members). He noted that the association's policy talks of both academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

"It is essential that universities have the freedom to set their research and educational priorities," says the association's statement. "How the members of universities will teach and impart skills, conduct research and the pursuit of knowledge, and engage in fundamental criticism, is best determined within the universities themselves. It is here that academic freedom, in its collective form of institutional autonomy, can ensure freedom of inquiry for individual faculty members and students. Historically there has been a struggle for university autonomy, arising from the conviction that a university can best serve the needs of society when it is free to do so according to the dictates of the intellectual enterprise itself."

Hiebert said that the reference to universities defining academic freedom themselves affirmed the Christian colleges' views that they could require belief in a set of theological views while still upholding values of academic freedom.

Christine Tausig Ford, secretary of the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada, said that group is now revising its statement -- but that the basic concepts would not change. She said that the CAUT's criticism of statements of faith has been much discussed among her member presidents.

She said her association hasn't yet taken a stand on the call by the Christian colleges for new national meetings to define academic freedom. The Christian association plans to invite the faculty group, and Turk said his association would most likely accept the invitation.