When Joining a Faculty Means Taking a Leap of Faith
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“We want people to get jobs,” says Mr. Cutler, an assistant professor of English who serves as his department’s placement director.
He has begun to reconsider such advice, however, in light of a recent, highly publicized clash between nearby Wheaton College and Larycia A. Hawkins, one of its tenured professors. Ms. Hawkins, an associate professor of political science, is fighting the evangelical Christian college’s efforts to fire her for declaring on Facebook that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
Events at Wheaton, Mr. Cutler says, have “given a lot of people pause.”
One Northwestern doctoral student, who spoke on the condition that her name and discipline be withheld to avoid hurting her employment prospects, says the advice she had received focused “on how to get hired at these places.” She had been urged to apply everywhere she could conscionably take a job.
The Wheaton controversy, she says, has made her realize how an instructor can run afoul of a religious college “after you get through the gate of being hired.” The universe of colleges where she would consider working has shrunk.
Some leaders of religiously affiliated colleges dismiss such fears as exaggerated. They argue that their colleges tend either to embrace academic freedom or to clearly state any limits they impose on it, often requiring prospective employees to sign a “statement of faith” subscribing to the institution’s beliefs or mission.
“We invite our faculty prospects to get to know us in terms of who we are,” says Edwin Estevez, provost of Greenville College, which is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church. Like many religious colleges, Greenville, in southern Illinois, posts on its website a detailed description of its beliefs and how they influence its approach to education. It says it does not expect faculty members “to pledge themselves to any rigid conformity in relation to thoughts and actions” but does expect them hold and act upon Christian beliefs and to comply with the same code of conduct that applies to residential students. That code prohibits alcohol on the campus and frowns upon premarital sex and same-sex relationships.
Shirley V. Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents 118 of the nation’s roughly 1,000 religiously affiliated higher-education institutions, says her group’s members “are really upfront about their core beliefs” and generally assume that prospective faculty members “will investigate the schools they are applying to.”
Just how much academics who are on the job market think about their compatibility with religious colleges is unclear.
A “simply enormous” cultural gap looms between the research universities that produce most of the nation’s Ph.D.s and the religious colleges that account for a substantial share of their potential employers, argues Karen Kelsky, who runs The Professor Is In, a business and blog dedicated to helping academics navigate job searches, and who blogs for Vitae, a Chronicle job service. Often, she says, doctoral students’ advisers fail to consider that religious colleges “even exist as potential places of employment.”
Such students “go out and they apply blindly,” she says. “They don’t understand the risks.”
Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University who writes about graduate education for The Chronicle, says time-pressed doctoral students generally are advised about employment at religious colleges only on an ad hoc basis, as offers arise.
“Everybody is looking for fit, but it is not always easy to see” where and when it occurs, says Mr. Cassuto, whose own institution is run by Jesuits. Typically, he says, doctoral students — especially those who find themselves with few job options — are urged to at least meet with any potential employer to see if a fit might exist.
Trying to gauge the religious climate of a college can be tricky, says Timothy T. Clydesdale, who has extensively studied such institutions as a professor of sociology at the College of New Jersey. He invokes the story of the blind men who touch different parts of an elephant. “These are complex organizations,” he says, “and depending on who you talk to, they will give you a different answer on how religious the place is.” The answers also can vary depending on discipline — mathematicians are less likely than philosophers to bump up against doctrine.
Mr. Clydesdale estimates that about two-thirds of the nation’s religiously affiliated colleges do not require any allegiance to doctrine and are “not that different than a nonsectarian private institution” in terms of protecting academic freedom.
Guarantees of academic freedom, however, do not always equate to freedom in terms of sexuality or other personal behavior. Many religious colleges effectively exclude gay people from their faculties by imposing lifestyle codes that bar same-sex relationships. Before running afoul of Wheaton with her comment on Christianity and Islam, Ms. Hawkins had come under scrutiny there for being photographed at a party held on the day and route of Chicago’s gay-pride parade.
Temporal and Temporary
For part-time adjunct faculty members who have to cobble together work from an assortment of colleges, it can be a matter of economic necessity to navigate the distinct requirements of religious institutions.
Many religious colleges require the same adherence to doctrine from part-time instructors as they do from full-timers on the tenure track. Others afford more leeway, knowing that the employment relationships need not be more than temporary.
Bethel College, an Indiana institution affiliated with the evangelical Missionary Church, subjects applicants for adjunct positions to much less screening and training for doctrinal conformity than those on the tenure track, says Gregg Chenoweth, Bethel’s president. “Our contract arrangement with an adjunct typically is just three months,” he says, so if any new hires fail to fit in with the college’s religious mission, “we are not obligated to them, and they are not as invested in us.”
L. Arik Greenberg, a lecturer in theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, says the Jesuit institution supports his academic freedom as “a secular Jew.” But at other religious colleges where he works, he says, “I have had to hide my non-Christian identity,” both for the sake of his professional advancement and to protect the institutions from potential sanctions imposed by accrediting bodies for religious institutions.
The due-process protections afforded adjunct instructors at any college typically are spelled out in collective-bargaining agreements or policies developed through shared governance, says Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for contingent academic workers. “I don’t know,” she says, “if they are in any more of a precarious position at a religious institution than they are at a secular institution, quite frankly.”
The American Association of University Professors urges all colleges to uphold academic freedom but recognizes that religious colleges may feel a need to limit it for doctrinal reasons. The group’s guidelines hold that any such limits should be clearly stated in writing at the time of a faculty member’s appointment, to ensure that the instructor accepts such restrictions knowingly.
Gregory F. Scholtz, director of the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance, says a lot of the academic-freedom controversies he sees at religious colleges arise from either shifts in adherence to doctrine as a result of new leadership, or disagreements within the institutions over which standards should be applied. Different academic departments or administrative offices can have their own cultures, which may collide with one another.
Anthony J. Diekema is a former president of Calvin College, a Michigan institution affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. Now a higher-education consultant, he recommends that religious colleges maintain advisory committees responsible for seeking amicable resolutions of disputes involving academic freedom.
“Once it becomes confrontational, you have essentially lost the battle,” he says. Disputes that escalate to the point of receiving media coverage hurt “both the individual and the institution.”
Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at email@example.com.