Faculty Senate withdraws proposed academic freedom statement

Updated: 5 days ago

Belmont’s faculty senate voted in an executive session to allow its president, Dr. Nathan Griffith, to withdraw the contentious proposed academic freedom statement Monday.

Senators discussed the original intent of the statement after it received widespread uproar from faculty. An open letter by philosophy professor Dr. Ronnie Littlejohn criticized the document for potentially stripping faculty of academic freedoms.

Dr. Mark Volker said debate stemmed from a misunderstanding of the statement’s purpose, along with a misconception that the draft would be voted on in its current form. Volker represents the College of Music and Performing Arts graduate program in the senate and is one of the seven members of the ad hoc committee who created the statement.

“If I had thought that that was going to be the final document, I wouldn’t have wanted that to happen, because I actually was not exactly satisfied with it in its form,” said Volker, who added that his committee intended to present the statement to faculty as something to be discussed and revised.

Volker also provided context for the statement, saying it was never meant to replace the academic freedom policy currently in the faculty handbook, but to stand alone as a set of principles used to define what the academic freedoms of Belmont faculty are.

The committee initially wanted to sign on to the Chicago principles, written by faculty at the University of Chicago, but the proposal was returned to the senators by then-President Dr. Bob Fisher.

“We were told, as the senate, that the president wouldn’t agree to that, but he would agree to a set of principles that were more tailored to Belmont,” said Volker.

The Chicago principles are meant to advise professors on their academic freedoms and protect them in matters related to free speech and expression when educating their students.

While it has been adopted by many universities, some leaders at Belmont — including Fisher — felt the university needed a version of the principles that applied more to a Christian institution, Griffith said in the meeting.

Volker said his committee began to draft a statement with more Christian language and reference to scripture. But overall, Volker said the intent was to give faculty a “framework” with which to defend their academic freedom.

“There have been speakers that have been prevented from coming because they are controversial in some way. But more often than not, it’s just because they have profanity in their books or something like that,” said Volker.

Despite Volker hoping the senate could discuss and revise the document to make it “more in line with what everyone wants,” the senate voted to allow faculty senate president Griffith to withdraw the statement, with Griffith saying the damage caused by the backlash was likely irreversible.

“I think pragmatically, practically, anything that comes from this now is going to be remembered as that thing. We’re not gonna be able to undo that association,” said Griffith during the meeting.

Faculty senator Dr. Anthony Blash also made the point that a preamble should have accompanied the statement draft explaining exactly what it was.

“Sometimes when you just hand somebody something and there’s no instructions, misunderstandings can occur,” said Blash.

Some, including Volker, wish to eventually present a clearer statement and avoid any miscommunication.

“I also think that we should probably feel that we have a responsibility to prevent something like this from happening again, because there’s obviously a communication breakdown here on what exactly it was we were doing,” Volker said during the meeting.

— PHOTO: Belmont Vision Multimedia

This article was written by Connor Daryani, Sarah Maninger and David Pang.

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