The provost of Wheaton College in Illinois, which received a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the HHS mandate last week, defended the evangelical Christian institution against an attack by an Ivy League professor who alleged that religious colleges should lose their accreditation, apparently for simply being religious.
“By awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education,” wrote University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Conn in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth.”
He continued, saying that “at Wheaton the primacy of reason has been abandoned by the deliberate and repeated choices of both its administration and its faculty.”
Conn described the accreditation of Wheaton by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools as “a scandal” which “makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.”
Stanton Jones, the provost of Wheaton, argued at the Chronicle that, despite Conn’s assertion that a religious institution is unable to practice free inquiry, the opposite may be true. “Reason is not antithetical to faith,” he said. “Faith is not understanding, but motivates and empowers the pursuit of understanding.”
Purely skeptical and unfettered inquiry is likely to simply chase itself in circles. Disciplined, rigorous, and self-critical inquiry grounded in a thoughtful understanding of one’s particularities can contribute to a vigorous and diverse intellectual marketplace. Religious scholars attracted to places like Wheaton find it useful to draw upon certain fundamental commitments to Christian faith to shape engagement with their academic subject matter, just as all scholars draw upon their own fundamental commitments.
Conn portrays academic freedom at places like Wheaton College as an illusion. It is not an illusion, but it can be complicated. Academic freedom, as Wolterstorff convincingly argues, is never uncomplicated or unqualified. Professors are never free from the ideological constraints of their disciplines or the judgments of their peers. Any rigorously honest history of any academic discipline shows, in hindsight, the blind spots and uncritically accepted dogmas of the moment. Academicians swimming with the contemporary intellectual tides often feel great freedom.
Jones also wrote in his response that he sometimes hears from academics at nonreligious colleges who say they do not feel free to “teach from and explore the connections between their intellectual disciplines and their religious convictions.”
Jones responds to Conn’s concern about Wheaton’s required “faith-statement affirmations” for faculty by writing that the College is transparent about seeking “to be a voluntary community of like-minded scholars who, within the framework of the defining characteristics of our institution, have the academic freedom to teach and to pursue knowledge as persons of shared religious conviction.”
Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae stipulates for each Catholic university that it “possesses that institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.”
Furthermore, the late Holy Father affirmed the compatibility of authentic academic inquiry and revelation in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, in which he wrote, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
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