The question of academic freedom for scholars in Christian higher education can sometimes feel discouraging. But it doesn’t have to, according to Dan Russ, academic dean, who explored the topic in a new book of essays published last fall. Russ discussed the challenges and sacrifices inherent in developing a campus ethos that encourages and honors the pursuit of academic freedom—without compromising the integrity of one’s scholarship. His chapter appeared in The Christian College Phenomenon: Inside America’s Fastest Growing Institutions of Higher Learning, edited by Samuel Joeckel and Thomas Chesnes (Abilene Christian University Press, 2011). Russ also recently spoke on the topic at a conference in June on Christian scholarship, and an excerpt of his chapter appears in the most recent issue of Gordon’s magazine Stillpoint.
“Fear Not: Security, Risk and Academic Freedom”
By Dan Russ
Recently, my colleagues and I were hosting one of our annual dessert parties for new students. After a bowl of ice cream and some cookies and coffee, we enjoyed a few minutes of discussion. To my surprise, one student asked: “Now that I have chosen Gordon, why is this the right choice?”
While one of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department waxed eloquent in response, I half listened while wondering how I should answer such a question. When my colleague finished, I simply added, “You made the right choice to come to Gordon, because we can tell the whole truth.” I went on to explain that most secular institutions of higher learning deny, ignore, or are indifferent to any truth claims grounded in religious faith, biblical texts, and church tradition, and some insist that holding to religious truths precludes the exercise of academic freedom. I went on to qualify my claim for Christian higher education by confessing that while Christian professors in a Christian college can tell the whole truth, we often do not for fear, individually or institutionally, that we will offend or anger some constituents: the administration, the board, our students, their parents, or some of our colleagues.
We would like to think that faculty signing a faith statement, along with a robust chapel program and a solid biblical/theological core for all students, would distinguish us as a Christian institution of higher learning. However, without an authentic commitment to academic freedom within a framework of Christian faith, Christian colleges and universities easily become either sanctified versions of secular institutions or oppressive and contentious organizations that drive honest questions and discussion underground and produce a scheming and polarized faculty and administration. Speaking the truth in love is the only way I know to live in the tension that we call freedom. If we believe that truth set us free and that perfect love casts out fear, then we need to have the courage to encourage one another, individually and institutionally, to risk living, studying, teaching, and writing as truthfully and lovingly as we know how. It is risky. That is the nature of freedom, whether political or academic. If our ultimate goal is to secure our jobs or to secure our institution financially, academic freedom is not possible.
Read the rest of Russ’s essay here: