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Some faculty upset over proposed academic freedom statement

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

Faculty at Belmont say they have been blindsided by a proposed academic freedom statement that uses religious language to potentially limit what can be taught in the classroom.

“There is nothing in this document that states categorically that Belmont faculty have a right to academic freedom,” said Dr. Ronnie Littlejohn, director of Belmont’s Asian Studies program, about the statement, which was presented at a faculty senate meeting.

“Academic freedom is the most fundamental freedom that a professor has to insist on … Faculty members like me saw it with one month’s notice and no opportunity to participate in discussion of it,” said Littlejohn.

The new one-page statement, drafted by an ad hoc faculty senate committee, mentions the words Christ or Christian eight times, Jesus once, God twice and references two Bible verses. It would likely replace the three-paragraph secular statement on page 36 of the Belmont faculty handbook.

The Vision reached out to multiple professors for comment on the new statement, but several would not speak on the record out of fear for their jobs.

“I told the colleagues who submitted it to us that it shouldn’t come up for a vote in faculty senate. It applies too broadly and focuses too narrow,” said one anonymous professor.

Littlejohn penned an open letter to the faculty senate asking to “indefinitely table or to simply reject” the statement based on its content and formatting.

The draft, although it addresses the importance of academic freedom, lacks key language protecting faculty members, said Littlejohn.

The current statement affirms “academic freedom is the right of every faculty member” and closes with a statement granting faculty the ability to file a grievance if they believe their academic freedom has been violated.

The new statement includes no such language.

“That in itself is worth rejecting it,” said Littlejohn, who has taught at the university for 37 years and received the Chaney Award, the university’s highest honor for classroom teaching, in 2013.

“This is what I would call, as a philosopher, a confessional statement. It’s not really policy. Look at the wording: ‘we encourage,’ ‘we contain,’ ‘we believe,’” said Littlejohn.

Without the right to appeal or file a grievance, faculty members who protest or teach around censorship can be fired for insubordination, said Littlejohn.

Not only is it lacking in vital protections, but the anonymous professor and Littlejohn both say the religious language in the new statement only creates further confusion.

The anonymous professor brought attention to the new statement’s use of Bible verses and raised concern about the subjective nature of scripture.

The statement includes a reference to Proverbs 2:6, “Knowledge is a gift from God,” and a key element of the new statement centers around a “Christian liberal arts education.”

“The meaning of this concept is too vague to have a policy function,” said Littlejohn in his open letter.

“Does it mean liberal arts education done by faculty who are Christians? Or, is there some sort of unique kind of liberal arts education that is Christian? If so, what would this possibly mean? It isn’t self-evident in any way.”

Dr. Andy Watts, who represents the College of Theology and Christian Ministry on the faculty senate, doesn’t find the religious language problematic, he said.

“Belmont is a higher education institution that has a Christian character and a Christian ethos that frames its approach to education and the relationship between different community members,” said Watts.

“We have to look at the context of how religious language is used in each of these paragraphs, and it’s used in an affirmative way of what I think this statement is trying to do,” said Watts. It is a document intended to “defend a liberal arts tradition of inquiry, argument and dialogue,” he said.

Language aside, Littlejohn also expressed concern about how the statement came to be in the first place.

“In an era in which the university is having town halls to consider mission, vision, purposeful living, making hope abound and recording attendance at diversity training meetings, what does it say about us that a presented change in the most fundamental principle of academia (academic freedom) was put together by a small ad hoc committee inside the senate, without university-wide faculty input and dialogue?”

“Students should be outraged about this, because let me tell you, whatever they do to faculty they can do to students,” Littlejohn said.

Faculty representatives will discuss the statement at the next faculty senate meeting Monday. The meeting is open to all and held in Massey 100 from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

PHOTO: The Janet Ayers Academic Center at Belmont University. David Pang / Belmont Vision

This article was written by David Pang. Contributory reporting by Sarah Maninger and Connor Daryani. Updated Friday at 3:20 p.m. to clarify the origin of the proposed statement.

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