Academic freedom at Trinity Western?

CAUT attacks Christian "faith test" for profs.

By most accounts, Trinity Western University, located in the Vancouver suburb Langley, is a respected member of the Canadian university community. It’s long enjoyed the rubber stamp of approval that is being a member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, an organization that fills the vacuum created by Canada’s lack of formal university accreditation. In 2004, the provincial government exempted the school from “detailed reviews of its degree programs,” making Trinity Western the fourth member of an elite club of west coast universities alongside the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University. In fact, having been opened in 1962, the school is one year older than UVic. Trinity Western is also home to three research chairs and boasts over $1 million in annual research funding, impressive for a relatively small institution.

Related: The end of the religious university? Also see: TWU in its own words: special no-straw edition

Despite Trinity Western University’s (TWU) near universal acceptance as a full-fledged university, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)—a union of sorts, representing faculty associations across the county, that has fought sometimes controversial fights over academic freedom since 1951—placed TWU on its blacklist of universities that violate academic freedom in October, effectively calling into question the school’s dedication to the very heart of what it is to be a university. According to a CAUT report, because TWU—which describes itself as “a faith-based institution, one inspired by Christ’s life and guided by his teachings”—submits its faculty to what CAUT calls a “faith test,” it is violating academic freedom.

The controversial faith test consists of a “Statement of Faith” that professors are required to sign annually and that outlines the “philosophical framework to which all faculty, staff and administration are committed without reservation.” It includes a list of convictions to which professors must assert to subscribe, including belief in the bible, in one infinitely perfect god, that Jesus Christ was a real man, and in “the bodily resurrection of the dead; of the believer to everlasting blessedness and joy with the Lord, of the unbeliever to judgment and everlasting conscious punishment.”

To CAUT, the Statement of Faith clearly demonstrates that TWU does not accept the standard definition of academic freedom. They consider universities to have violated academic freedom if they “seek to ensure an ideologically or religiously homogeneous academic staff,” which clearly includes TWU.

James Turk, executive director of CAUT, says that his organization is only sharing with the world what TWU is, not outright denying their right to existence as a university. Yet, Jonathan Raymond, TWU president, is taking CAUT’s actions very seriously. “Such an allegation can easily damage the reputation of a university and place a cloud over the scholarship of its faculty,” Raymond wrote in a recent response to CAUT’s report.

The whole dispute comes down to the definition of a cornerstone of the modern university: academic freedom. In Raymond’s view, TWU’s definition is comfortably mainstream, and that it is possible to have investigation and teaching within the context of a stated perspective. The academic calendar at TWU goes so far as to reject a definition of academic freedom that denies an established perspective: “Trinity Western University rejects as incompatible with human nature and relevational theism a definition of academic freedom which arbitrarily and exclusively requires pluralism without commitment, denies the existence of any fixed points of reference, maximizes the quest for truth to the extent of assuming it is never knowable, and implies an absolute freedom from moral and religious responsibility to its community.” In other words, the university rejects relativism, which many academics would say is incompatible with the primary role of a university.

“When a person is hired, all universities make judgments in terms of hiring them to be consistent with the mission of the institution,” Raymond said in an interview with Maclean’s. “Once they’re hired, the institution is absolutely obligated to protect their academic freedom. But all universities have criterion for gathering a scholarly community in support of their mission.” So TWU differs in that its mission is to be a Christian university, but once that community of like-minded academics is established, free inquiry can thrive.

So can true academic freedom exist at a Christian university? Can real debate happen within an assumed set of values? CAUT would say no. The conventional understanding of academic freedom, according to CAUT’s policy, is “the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion; freedom in carrying out research… [emphasis theirs]” According to this view of academic freedom, accepting anything as absolute truth without reservation runs counter to the pursuit of knowledge faculty engage in.

The core issue, according to Turk, is not that Christian beliefs are part of the mission of the university, but that those beliefs appear to come before everything else. The report points to TWU’s own claims of being a “disciple-making academic community” and “an arm of the Church” where “all teaching, learning, thinking, and scholarship take place under the direction of the Bible, the wholly authoritative and truthful Word of God.”

“No university should be the arm of any institution,” Turk said. “A university shouldn’t be the arm of the Church or the arm of state or the arm of a special interest group. The very nature of a university should not be to make disciples.”

But although CAUT argues that TWU’s understanding of academic freedom and the role of a university are outside the norm, TWU throws that accusation right back, saying that CAUT’s definition is the abnormal one. “Why do I say it’s marginal?” asks Raymond, explaining that the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) has a very different definition of academic freedom. “Here’s the difference: in the AUCC, and in the counterpart institutions down in the States, academic freedom has to be superintended and worked out within the autonomy of a given university. CAUT’s definition ignores the idea of autonomy.”

Turk, on the other hand, says that the AUCC should rethink TWU’s membership. “AUCC simply has not respected its own rules in admitting Trinity Western,” he said. “It has not upheld its own commitment to academic freedom.”

Glen A. Jones, Ontario Research Chair on post-secondary education policy and associate dean at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, says that while CAUT’s definition is much closer to the traditional Canadian understanding of academic freedom, TWU is right to point to the United States. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—which is similar to CAUT—is the go-to organization for American court cases dealing with academic freedom. In its famous declaration of academic freedom, AAUP was forced to include an opt out accepting limitations of academic freedom at religious institutions as long as they were laid out at the time of appointment, which TWU clearly does with its Statement of Faith. Nevertheless, Canada’s post-secondary system was built on secular education, Jones said, so limitations on academic freedom are not commonly accepted here.

Raymond points out that CAUT is not responding to any specific complaint of a violation of academic freedom. In fact, he claims, there hasn’t been any such complaint in the university’s entire history. Rather he believes that CAUT is attacking TWU arbitrarily for being a Christian institution. “The CAUT report itself found no occasion of academic freedom [violations] outside the fact that we are a Christian university chartered by the province as such.”

CAUT wasn’t investigating specific complaints, rather the way institutions are structured, Turk says. “It may not be surprising that there are no academic freedom complaints within their restricted definition when they don’t allow anybody in the door who disagrees with them.”

CAUT does indeed appear to be targeting Christian schools, as TWU is certainly not the only one—just the first. Investigations of “faith tests” at other universities are in the works, including the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Crandall University in Moncton (formerly the Atlantic Baptist University) and Redeemer University College in Ancaster.

But one gets the feeling that Turk and CAUT wouldn’t stop with Christian schools. “Academic freedom can’t be bounded by a particular ideology. It would be like a university saying that we’re a Marxist university and unless you’re a Marxist, you can’t teach here.”