Faith tests don’t belong anywhere

Christian universities need to rethink their hiring practices

The debate surrounding academic freedom at Christian universities has heated up once again with the placement of Canadian Mennonite University on the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) list of schools who use faith tests as part of their employment conditions.

While I don’t doubt that these universities are academic institutions of quality, imposing a faith test on faculty members is an extreme measure in the name of preserving a university’s religious mandate, one that warrants the criticism it has received.

The circumstances at CMU are bit more complex than those at Trinity Western or Crandall. CMU also has to take the faculty members at its Menno Simons College, which is a part of CMU but based out of the University of Winnipeg, into account when deciding on its policies and procedures. The CAUT report explained that many faculty members at MSC feel that they are equally a part of the U of W and CMU, and that they should have the same academic rights as faculty at the U of W.

It’s also important to note that while CMU’s mandate is to provide a religious university education based in the Anabaptist religion, MSC’s focus is to teach programs surrounding conflict resolution and international development, and was not founded as a theological institution. It is understandable, then, why any strict faith-based hiring and employment policies at CMU that apply to MSC faculty members as well would be concerning to those instructing at MSC.

The report  explains that some of the MSC professors CAUT spoke with said that while they were comfortable supporting a mandate to be committed to peace, justice, and non-violence, “they were very uncomfortable with a more specific and demanding commitment to a Christian, let alone to an Anabaptist or Mennonite interpretation of the mission.”

Even though the hiring policy adopted at CMU in 2007 did give special concessions to faculty members at MSC, some professors felt that these concessions still did not protect their academic freedom. The special policies applied to  Menno Simons did not completely omit the possibility of using a faith test in the hiring processes at MSC, and policies governing continued employment at MSC were still very similar to those of CMU, meaning that a faith test could still apply to employees as a condition of employment.

It hasn’t been explicitly stated by the CAUT whether or not they chose to launch their investigation into CMU because of the concerns that arose from instructors at the MSC. However, it’s troubling that faculty members at MSC could still be subject to faith based requirements as a condition of employment, despite their objections to what they felt was a demand to be more committed to CMU’s Christian mission. It’s also concerning that CMU’s definition of institutional academic freedom, which is “shaped by its identity as an institution rooted in Anabaptist-Mennonite beliefs,” doesn’t give much support to those who may diverge from that mission.

Some have argued that the CAUT’s investigations into the employment conditions of these Christian universities have violated their right to run themselves in a way that is in keeping with their religious values.

“CAUT’s campaign impugns the legal rights of faith-based institutions to require employees to conduct themselves in ways consistent with their affiliation to the organization’s religious mission,” wrote Peter Stockland, director of Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, in the Vancouver Sun. “Settled human rights law and religious freedom rulings from the Supreme Court of Canada entitle such organizations — non-academic and academic alike — to do just that.”

In an interview with Macleans, Trinity Western president Jonathan Raymond also argued that all universities have to make judgments when hiring personnel surrounding whether or not hiring them will be in keeping with the mission of their institution.

Given that the CAUT’s policy defines academic freedom as “the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion” and “freedom in carrying out research,” Raymond also said he felt that the CAUT’s definition of academic freedom, “ignores the idea of autonomy.”

Yet the purpose of giving universities autonomy is to allow them to freely pursue their education and research priorities, not to allow them to do whatever they wish in terms of hiring and employment practices. Further, judging how a potential employee measures up to faith-based requirements is vastly different from the judgments most universities have to make when hiring faculty members. A person’s commitment to their faith is much harder to quantify than someone’s education or level of experience in a particular field.

While these institutions may argue that these faith tests ensure that their staff have their school’s religious mandate in mind, I would speculate that the explicit Christian mission of CMU and of other religious universities would already attract staff with the same priorities. Faith tests are only a measure to ensure that the ideologies of their staff are homogenous. This is not only unfair to their faculty members, but to their students as well. A good university education should be filled with lively discussion, and the realization that not everyone agrees with you. I find it hard to believe that students can experience that aspect of university in a setting where their professors are essentially required to hold the same beliefs as their school and each other.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.