David Sallee
Baptist Reflections
October 17, 2008




I recently asked David Sallee to share, with TBC friends and supporters, his perspective on the importance of academic freedom to religious liberty. David and I were both in the 1973 graduating class of Oklahoma Baptist University, and I am proud to call him my friend.

The result of my request is the accompanying column, "Academic Freedom at Baptist Colleges and Universities."

Although historically Baptist, William Jewell College elected to sever its ties to the Missouri Baptist Convention in 2003, following a debate about academic freedom and self-governance.

At TBC, we hold fast to historic Baptist principles, at the core of which is the God-granted freedom that lies at the heart of the Gospel. William Jewell College, though no longer affiliated with any Baptist convention, stands firmly for that freedom at a time that many institutions still identifying themselves as Baptist have chosen to yield to the relentless pressure of Fundamentalists to exercise control over them.

Holding fast to freedom and academic integrity, William Jewell College now stands as a national liberal arts college that equips its students to - as David Sallee says in his column - search freely for the truth.

For details on the courageous and principled stand that David Sallee and William Jewell College have taken for academic freedom, please read our reprint of the 2003 Academe magazine article, "This Jewell Is a Real Gem."

- Bill Jones, TBC Communications Editor

One of the most significant challenges facing Baptist colleges and universities is the long-standing interest of some persons in limiting the freedom of faculty and students in their pursuit of themes, questions, and topics that might fall outside what some Baptists would be comfortable with. A recent complaint offered on my campus reflects a common viewpoint on the issue of academic freedom: the parent of a student expressed concern about our choice of a speaker for a science lecture. The parent questioned the propriety of the College’s decision to host a lecturer who is outspoken in support of evolution. Believing that academic freedom, even in the very limited context of listening to a speaker, should not be practiced at a church-related college, the parent was adamant that students should not be exposed to perspectives that he considered outside the mainstream of Christian beliefs.

I responded by pointing out that academic freedom is fundamental to developing high‑level intellectual skills, the primary function of a college. While that function is not the same as the church’s function, it is complementary. Fundamental to development of critical-thinking skills is affording students an opportunity to raise questions, consider topics counter to their point of view, and allow themselves to address notions never before considered. It is not our institutional goal to shape students’ final perspective on a subject such as evolution but, rather, to give them the tools to eventually shape their own perspectives. Our expectation is that such presentations stimulate in-depth discussion and thoughtful reflection on the part of students and faculty. If that occurs, students move a step closer to developing those high‑level intellectual skills.

A few years ago, another guest speaker gave an impassioned presentation on why America should not engage in early stem cell research. Before he presented his argument, the speaker advised the audience that he would speak passionately and with conviction on the topic; however, he also cautioned that he was not convinced that he was right. When the speaker finished his remarks, a student asked him how he could speak with such conviction yet not be certain that he was right. Our speaker responded by pointing out that there are very smart people he respects who disagree with his perspective – and that they might be right. More important, though, he said that this discussion is not about winning or losing the argument, but about finding the truth.

We can find the truth only if we are free to search for it. Students can find the truth and meaning in their lives only if faculty members have the freedom to lead, and to follow, those students where their searches take them. Limiting freedom of searching and freedom of expression does not make for better Christians or better churches or better colleges.

The purpose of academic freedom is to create a space in which ideas can be studied and shared and reviewed and reconsidered in the belief that exploration will produce a better‑educated graduate. I am convinced that a populace that is thoughtful and active in exploring the questions of faith is better for the church; citizens who have honed their critical-thinking skills are better for the community, better for our country. Christians who have come to their beliefs by developing them, rather than receiving them, will continue to adjust as their world changes and will face uncertainty with more confidence and authenticity. To be better educated, however, students and faculty must be free to explore.

To hold the position that academic freedom is necessary for a great education requires, however, a clear understanding of how the church experience and the college experience relate to each other. Barbara Brown Taylor, in a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke to this issue:

In the end, I think, it is not a matter of pitting church (or synagogue or masjid) against classroom, but of discerning what each does best. As the primary place where religious identity is formed, church is where seekers learn the stories of their faith in community and celebrate the rituals that keep that story alive. In that context, it makes sense for religious leaders to offer answers to life’s big questions, so that followers may articulate the difference between themselves and others on similar paths. In church, religion is not chiefly something to be studied but something to be practiced. It is a way of life.

By contrast, the classroom is a secondary space, where religious affiliation is not a requirement for admission. Those with faith commitments are welcome to participate, but not to dominate. While their interest in the academic study of religion is what brings them together, that study will not prescribe how they answer life’s big questions. It will only teach them how others have answered those questions before them and are answering them even now. In the classroom, what students have most in common is not their religion but their humanity, and at this universal remove from the hotter issues of their faith, they are invited to encounter one another in all their differences.

For Baptist colleges to be great colleges means that they must first be great centers of intellectual challenge, with the freedom to address the most difficult, sometimes distasteful, issues. “Encounter[ing] one another in all their differences” is at the heart of education but is often difficult for the church to embrace. Therefore, establishing clarity of function and commitment both to academic freedom and to broad Christian principles is the ongoing challenge for colleges that relate to the church. Such clarity and commitment, however, should produce graduates in whom no part of decision-making is untouched by faith and no part of faith unaffected by the world in which they live. (Westlie)

          Taylor, Barbara Brown; “Questions of Faith,” the Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 53, Issue 24, p. B14, February 16, 2007.
          Westlie, John; from an unpublished paper at William Jewell College, “College Mission, Christian Mission, and Academic Mission,” October 2005.