Belmont took the unusual step of holding a press conference in early October to announce the hiring of former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who will take a newly created endowed position at the College of Law.
During this Oct. 3 public announcement, something usually reserved for high-level administration instead of faculty, neither the university nor the media addressed the controversy surrounding Gonzales’ tenure as White House counsel and attorney general in the Bush administration.
Since the announcement of Gonzales’ hiring, an ongoing concern and conversation among current Belmont faculty led 45 of them to sign a statement that they then presented to the administration. In the human rights letter, some issues addressed were controversial during Gonzales’s two and a half years as attorney general.
While the statement did not mention Gonzales’s name, talk on campus and in the community has suggested a link. Faculty members who signed the letter declined to comment when the letter was released Oct. 14, suggesting they wanted the letter to stand on its own; now a few are willing to speak out about the connection.
When asked about the rumors of the link between the letter and Gonzales, Dr. Robbie Pinter, a professor of English that signed the letter, replied there is “no question about that, it’s about him.”
The driving element of the letter, Pinter said, has nothing to do with the actual hiring, but merely what Gonzales stands for.
“I really think he’s a symbol of something that’s happening in our culture, something I’m very against,” she said. “He may be a scapegoat but he’s still a symbol.”
The human rights issues brought up in the letter spoke out against torture, mistreatment of detainees, hasty use of the death penalty, upholding the Constitution and the provisions of “treaties to which we are a party.”
Much of the controversy that still surrounds Gonzales, Bush’s White House counsel for four years, stems from his involvement then with the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques on “war on terror” detainees at Guantanamo and at CIA prisons in undisclosed locations. Frequently those techniques have come to light as violations of the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Convention against Torture, and other treaties the U.S. has signed.
Five years later, Gonzales stepped down in the midst of controversy as attorney general after Justice Department’s alleged firing of attorneys for political reasons during his tenure. An investigation in 2010 found no evidence linking Gonzales to the firings.
“I have no arguments that people in the Bush administration believed they were protecting their country, don’t doubt their patriotism or that they believed it was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Daniel Schafer, a professor of history who was involved with letter’s creation. “… Seems to me, and there’s been cases, investigations into this, that Mr. Gonzales was one of the lawyers that created the lessening of moral policies.”
Provost Dr. Thomas Burns responded on behalf of Belmont administration to the faculty letter released to the Vision Oct. 14. It has since been picked up by local media. Burns’s written response stated:
“The Belmont community includes 6,400 students and nearly 1,500 employees representing a wide spectrum of perspectives on issues. We value all of their opinions. The letter sent to the Belmont Vision by a small group of faculty represents their personal opinions on several topics. As a Christian university, Belmont is committed to providing both an academically engaging education and a caring campus environment. We support the free exchange of ideas, encourage thoughtful and respectful discussion, and believe that it would be best to address such issues through conversation and dialogue. As Provost, I hope that members of our community are willing to engage in conversations that promote both intellectual and spiritual growth.”
Members of the faculty who signed the letter are all full-time professors, and all but six of the 45 signees are tenured. Belmont has 276 full-time professors, so approximately one out of six full-time professors signed the letter concerning human rights.
When Gonzales took a faculty position in the law school at Texas Tech University in 2009, 45 of that school’s faculty of more than 900 signed a petition that stated their opposition to the hire.
Belmont’s letter, on the other hand, was not released until almost two weeks after the announcement of Gonzales’s new position and did not address hiring or firing of faculty in any way.
“The letter went out to full faculty late in the game. [It] wasn’t meant to be a poll for the entire faculty,” Schafer said.
Signees listed reasons for signing that varied from personal experience to legal ideals.
“I did it because it’s who I am and you know, I want to be a witness to what I believe in and stand for as a human being,” said Dr. Annette Sisson, a professor of English.
In an interview with the Tennessean published Oct. 9, Gonzales responded to the discontent over his hiring.
“In terms of distraction and debate within the academic community, I think Belmont, like Texas Tech, is large enough and diverse enough where you can have competing views,” he said. “I think it benefits the students to have people who may have different views. And the students can hear those competing views, and hopefully those who oppose me have enough confidence in their views to lay out their position as opposed to my position, and we’ll see who has the better argument.”
Faculty members are quick to point out that the letter was meant for “free academic debate on these issues,” and not about Gonzales personally.
“No one that I’ve heard thinks that the university and the law school is in the wrong for hiring who they want,” Schafer said. “Some feel that the hiring is pointing the law school in a particular direction, issues that should be concerning for a Christian university.”
Brian Wilson contributed to this article
To the Editor: Belmont University Mission Statement Belmont University is a student-centered Christian community providing an academically challenging education that empowers men and women of diverse backgrounds to engage and transform the world with disciplined intelligence, compassion, courage and faith. … The University faculty, administration and staff uphold Jesus as the Christ and as the measure of all things. Students encounter Christian values relevant to personal growth and spiritual maturity and are expected to commit themselves to high moral standards. … Belmont University empowers men and women to engage and transform the world. The university prepares students to use their intellectual skills, creativity, and faith to meet the challenges and opportunities that face the human community.
Where We Stand We write today to state firmly our position on crucial issues that are a part of the community’s conversation and reflection. Belmont University welcomes diverse opinions and perspectives as part of our goal to provide an academically challenging education and to create a community of intellectual exchange. We honor the tradition of academic freedom and the freedom of all of our community’s members to use discernment to determine their perspectives and actions.
That said, our community also seeks to be a place of courage, particularly courage to stand for the “least of these.” To that end, the signatories of this document affirm the following:
1. We stand against the use of torture. As stated by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture: “Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved—policy- makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.” The lack of efficacy in the use of torture to achieve any stated goals has been well documented, most frequently by those who are experts in interrogation techniques, however no possible result can justify our nation’s use of torture. The United States has a long history of standing against torture, and the United States Congress has repeatedly expressed that position by passing laws and ratifying treaties that prohibit torture and the mistreatment of detainees. No American, not even the president, can violate these laws. Echoing the words of the National Association of Evangelicals, we “call for the extension of procedural protections and human rights to all detainees, seek clear government-wide embrace of the Geneva Conventions, including those articles banning torture and cruel treatment of prisoners, and urge the reversal of any U.S. government law, policy or practice that violates the moral standards outlined in [the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an
Age of Terror].” We also stand against the narrowing of the definition of torture so as to make its prohibition meaningless.
2. We stand against the indiscriminate and hasty use of the death penalty. The taking of a human life is the most serious power a government might exercise. Any death penalty case demands full review and an examination of all extenuating circumstances and facts. Those in positions of power over human life should be held to the highest standard in exercising that power.
3. We stand for the importance of upholding the United States Constitution, the laws of the United States, and the provisions of all treaties to which we are a party. The appropriate response to an unjust or unwise law is the legislative or judicial process. Failing those measures, we look to the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who guide us in ways to oppose unjust laws. Writing from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King stated: “There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all… One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly…I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.”
In order to foster discussion and education on these issues, the signatories of this document intend to support opportunities to discuss the issues presented in this document. As an educational community committed to open exchange and exploration, we will encourage the sponsorship of speakers, discussions, and other events to further our understanding and inform our actions.
The Rev. Marty Bell, Professor of Religion Daniel Biles, Professor of Mathematics Joyce Blair Crowell, Professor of Computer Science Gail Bursch, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Robert O. Byrd, Professor of School of Religion David E. Curtis, Professor of English and Associate Dean for the School of Humanities Jeremy Scott Ecke, Assistant Professor of English Kris Elsberry, Professor of Music Deen E. Entsminger, Professor of Music Bill Feehely, Associate Professor of Theater Paul Gatrell, Associate Professor of Theatre, Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance Tim Gmeiner, Associate Professor for Library Services Jose D. Gonzalez, Instructor of Management and Entrepreneurship Nathan Griffith, Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science
Charmion Gustke, Full-time Instructor of English Cathy Hinton, Professor of Physical Therapy Sandra Hutchins, Professor of English Caresse John, Assistant Professor of English Linda Jones, Associate Professor of Psychology David C. Julseth, Professor of Spanish and Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages Terry Klefstad, Associate Professor of Music and Associate Director of Graduate Studies in Music Kristine LaLonde, Associate Professor of Honors Lauren Lunsford, Associate Professor of Education Mark McEntire, Professor of Religion Andy Miller, Associate Professor of Mathematics Douglas Murray, Professor of English Jeff Overby, Associate Professor of Marketing John H. E. Paine, Professor of Literature A. Darlene Panvini, Associate Professor of Biology Natalia Pelaz-Escribano, Assistant Professor of Spanish Robbie Pinter, Professor of English Teresa Plummer, Assistant Professor in Occupational Therapy Daniel Schafer, Professor of History Regine Schwarzmeier, Associate Professor of German Annette M. Sisson, Professor of English and Director, Master of Arts in English Program Judy Skeen, Professor of Religion Andi Stepnick, Professor of Sociology Steven P. Stodghill, Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical, Social & Administrative Sciences Andrea Stover, Associate Professor of English Jennifer T. Thomas, Associate Professor of Biology Jonathan Thorndike, Professor of Honors Teresa VanHatten-Granath, Associate Professor of Art Jane Warren, Associate Professor of Music Andy Watts, Associate Professor of Religion Bonnie Smith Whitehouse, Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English Judith P. Williams, Reference Librarian