SBL Statement on Public Statements & Academic Freedom

Lately I have commented and criticized some of SBL’s recent statements and stances so it is only fair that when I agree with a position they have taken I should praise them. ((Although I still don’t like the new logo. Looks like the Stadtbibliothek logo. Stadtbibliothek ))

Today SBL sent an email regarding a position that was passed by the council in December 2015. (Some have suggested this is a new statement, adopted by the SBL council as a result of recent petitions. That is not the case, the statement was approved on December 15, 2015 and simply wasn’t released until a month later.) The Role of the Society in Making Public Statements is in response (I assume) to the recent calls for SBL to sanction or otherwise take action against institutions that do not conform to the petitioner’s views of Academic Freedom. I find the statement to be a good balance of defending academic freedom and the recognition that, especially in our discipline, “individual members may espouse intensely-felt opinions on ethical issues that can be diametrically opposed to the opinions of other members.” It presents the need for the society to abide by the limits of being a 501c3 organization while fostering an environment that it is respectful of these often widely divergent views and encouraging further discussion on such important but divisive issues.

The Society exists to foster the development of responsible ethical and political positions by its diverse members, especially on issues that touch on our profession and expertise. Were the Society to espouse particular ethical and political positions and issue public statements on them, it would situate itself over against its own members who hold divergent opinions.

Last week I started a post which I will leave in draft format concerning a recent petition to have the SBL take an aggressive stand against academic institutions like Wheaton College who, in the signers’ view, do not abide by the AAUP’s statement regarding academic freedom. While I do not wish to get comment now on the debacle occurring at Wheaton, I do want to comment on the AAUP’s position on academic freedom. In particular, to note that those of us who work in biblical studies are often in a very unique and difficult position vis a vis the usual considerations of academic freedom and this is even more complicated for our colleagues who work in faith based institutions. The AAUP acknowledged this in their 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom.

“Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.”

It is important to note that there is a 1970 comment that says “Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 “Statement,” and we do not now endorse such a departure.” While it is interesting that the 1970 group felt that such institutions “no longer need or desire” the exemption it is clear that the institutions themselves clearly do feel that they should have and need such a caveat.

A colleague of mine who was a recent president of the MLA pointed this out to me in correspondence,

And when DePaul fired Norman Finkelstein some years ago, for alleged violations of “Vincentian values” in his scholarship…, the AAUP position was that the firing was illegitimate because DePaul had never said in writing that its faculty had to hew to Vincentian values in their published work. Presumably, this left open the possibility that if DePaul had done so, their dismissal of Finkelstein would have been within their rights…

It would seem in practice the AAUP does still see that exemption as operational since they apparently would have been comfortable with Finkelstein’s dismissal if DePaul had told him upfront what the expectations were. Places like Wheaton College do make it clear from the outset what their views and expectations are and they hold their faculty to those standards. Everyone knows that going in.

So if the institutions are making their positions clear from the outset and all parties are aware of that, I think that fits within the current, stated expectations of AAUP.

Now this still leaves open a legitimate and difficult debate about the limitations of such institutions. As an OpEd in the Chronicle today put it

Religious belief instantiated in college policy is, more or less by definition, indisputable. But if that’s the case, one wonders why Wheaton bothers to employ scholars to explore theology; it would be easier to just hand down the Word from on high. Churches and colleges are not the same thing. ((Academic Freedom Has Limits. Where They Are Isn’t Always Clear. by Kevin Carey. I can’t say I agree with everything in the piece but it is very thoughtful and well laid out. Carey does address the fact that in most universities it is the tenured faculty who are the only ones who really have true freedom.))

Or as another colleague framed it, religious schools that insist that certain theological conclusions must be maintained then faculty by definition do not have the freedom to come to different conclusions. For a professor of, say, Math, this might not be much of an issue, but for those of us in biblical and theological studies obviously our research might well lead us to conclusions that are indeed no longer in line with the institution’s creed.

This is the point at which I think personal integrity comes into play. If, for example, a professor in Bible or theology at Wheaton were to come to the conclusion that Jesus’ death was not “a representative and substitutionary sacrifice” then why would such a faculty member wish to continue at such a school? (Aside from the obvious pragmatic answer of income.) They would implicitly be affirming a fundamental tenet that they themselves no longer believe. Again, we may not agree with the school’s position, but at least they are very open and direct about what it is and that it will be maintained.

Those of us who are in these fields then are in a very unique and odd situation. Scholars in our field are often not only studying religion and religious texts, we are often people of faith who are examining issues central to our own faith as well as that of others. The new SBL statement recognizes this difficult tension between academic freedom and faith convictions.  It is a delicate dance to be maintained and John Kutsko has an unenviable task.

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