Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Beckwith Denied Tenure

Francis Beckwith--an outstanding evangelical philosopher, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the current program chairman of the Evangelical Theological Society--is the associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies and associate professor of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is the associate editor of the Journal of Church & State. He's also the author of arguably the most persuasive and careful philosophical book against abortion.

He has just been denied tenure at Baylor University. See here and here.

Joseph Bottum writes:

In the end, an appeals process exists, and Beckwith may end up getting tenure at Baylor. But either way, his career is badly damaged. If he manages to stay in Waco, he remains at a place that has very clearly informed him it doesn’t like him, and if he leaves, he will have real trouble landing any respectable position. If you’re one of those senior professors brought to Baylor to jazz the place up—if you are, say, someone like Rodney Stark— how can you recruit young faculty to carry forward the 2012 plan?

If I were one of these professors, I’d be forced to advise my protégés to take other offers and pass on Baylor. Academic careers are fragile things: They don’t easily survive a firing, for whatever reason, and young professors shouldn’t take the chance that the mess of an institutional meltdown will ruin their professional life.

In certain ways, the case of Francis Beckwith is merely one example of a general trend worth noticing. In his fascinating book The Dying of the Light, James Burtchaell laid out the pattern by which America’s religious colleges changed their spots, but there are some new elements in the latest episodes.

It works this way: Take an old-fashioned religiously affiliated school. Baylor will do, but Notre Dame and Wheaton and Davidson and the University of Dallas are just as handy.

In each case, the college has an old faculty generally contented with the school’s regional and religious standing. And for some years it has been hiring new faculty who, if not opposed outright to the school’s affiliation, are at least embarrassed by it. These newer teachers came with impressive credentials out of premier graduate programs—but the tightening of the academic job market forced them into positions at lower-tier colleges, and they always believed, in one way or another, that their new schools should take places like Yale and Harvard as their models.

Now, along comes somebody with a vision for the school: a realization that the religious identity is necessary to ensure a steady supply of students and that the nation actually has a set of distinguished senior faculty who want to teach a religiously serious place and want to build up a genuine Christian university. So the school starts to make its move, and the faculty (and often the school’s board of directors) rebels.

The weird part—the new pattern worth noticing—is the common cause made by the secularists and the old religious believers to fight the college’s transformation. You’d think they’d be natural enemies, but it turns out that they both have something at stake in preventing the school from becoming known as a first-rate research university for religiously motivated scholars.

Liberal-vs.-conservative politics does, in fact, form part of the struggle. The old faculty members often poised themselves as liberals (over against what they thought of as the troglodyte, non-Ph.D. members of their own denominations), while the newer, secular-trained faculty usually held the default leftist politics of the American academy. Is it a surprise that none of them much liked the religious faculty suddenly appearing on campus—all of whom, given the play of religion in national politics these days, look like conservatives?

Another part of the problem, as Richard John Neuhaus has noted, has to do with a shared notion of the separation of belief and knowledge. The newer secularized faculty, naturally, wanted—as James Burtchaell might put it—to see the school’s old Christian light do even more dying. And though the older religious faculty wanted to keep the religious tone of the school, they also held the idea that this should somehow continue without a whole lot of explicit intellectual commitment. “Under the old regime,” Neuhaus observed, “devout Bible-believing Christians operated with a ‘two spheres’ approach to education. Science and reason were in one sphere, faith and piety in another, and there was an agreement that neither sphere would be allowed to interfere with the other.”

Other factors could be mentioned. From John Silber’s experiences at B.U. to Lawrence Summer’s at Harvard, the Boston area alone has provided reason to think the American university is at the moment nearly ungovernable: An air of resentment for authority pervades the place, and a university president is the handiest local authority figure on whom to take out that resentment.

And then there are the ecumenical troubles. The religiously informed figures brought to campus are scattered across America’s denominational divisions. Some of them, like the philosopher Thomas Hibbs (dean of Baylor’s honors college), are Catholics. Others are northern evangelicals (like the literary scholar David Lyle Jeffrey, provost of Baylor until fired by the new administration after Robert Sloan was forced out as president). All of them are participants in a new style of intellectual ecumenism, in which serious Catholics and serious Protestants join in the work of unfolding a Christian understanding of academic disciplines. But modern radicalism and old-fashioned Protestantism share a distaste both for Catholicism and—interestingly—for evangelicalism, since the old denominational Baptists always thought of the Southern Baptist Convention as distant from the northern evangelical churches.

The combination of all this is deadly. Many thoughtful observers of American academics have been uncomfortable with the attempt—at Ave Maria University, for instance—to build new religious schools: Wouldn’t the money be better spent financing scholars at established universities than starting up new, uncredentialed institutions? Of course, the pattern Burtchaell noted in The Dying of the Light is proof that American colleges are masters at taking donations for one purpose and converting them to another. But the new development of semi-associated institutes like Robert George’s James Madison Program at Princeton University suggests that there may be genuine ways to influence the nation’s premier colleges.

As it happens, these new, semi-affiliated institutes have their own problems, one of which is their submission to the idea that the university is an inherently politicized place. This is what an undergraduate education is supposed to teach?

To watch Baylor University’s apparent collapse, however, is to think that the American college is not, in its present form, capable of being saved. For all their problems, the new, uncredentialed but genuinely religious schools might be the superior option. For all their awkwardness, more prestigious colleges with a religiously serious institute nearby might be the better choice.

Think about it: If you were a young, high-powered academic with ambitions for a Christian school that matched the new intellectual excitement of the American ecumenical endeavor, why would you risk your career at a place like Baylor? You can buy the same kind of trouble at a better price by taking whatever offer you get from an openly secular college.

For that matter, if you were a parent interested in your children’s obtaining intellectually rigorous Christian education, why would you pay the tuition at Baylor University? Indeed, if you were one of those bright, young Christian students, why would you want to go to Baylor in the first place?

(HT: Hugh Hewitt)