Trinity Western faces pressure over faith statement
Charles Lewis, National Post
A dispute has erupted between the country’s largest association of university teachers and a group of Christian schools, raising questions over whether academic freedom can exist in an overtly religious environment.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has issued a report that says B.C.-based Trinity Western University falls below the standard of proper academic freedom because it requires its faculty sign a statement of Christian faith before being hired.
It has also put the organization “on a list of institutions found to have imposed a requirement of a commitment to a particular ideology or statement as condition of employment.”
The statement of faith, available on the school’s web site, acknowledges, among other things, that there is one God, the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and that Christ is God incarnate.
The report by the teachers’ body also pointed to excerpts from the academic calendar, which in part said: “All teaching, learning, thinking, and scholarship take place under the direction of the Bible.”
Although Trinity Western is the first school to be put on the list, the organization said it will now investigate three other Christian universities — Crandall University in Moncton, Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, and Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. — all of which require faculty to sign faith statements.
“A school that requires its faculty to subscribe to a particular religious belief or ideology cannot be practicing academic freedom,” said James Turk, executive director of CAUT. “This is not about the school being Christian, but about faculty having to sign a statement of faith before being hired. A university is meant as a place to explore ideas, not to create disciples of Christ.”
“The list and investigation implies there’s something sinister,” said Al Hiebert, president of Christian Higher Education Canada, an umbrella group for Christian universities and colleges, including Trinity Western and the other three schools. “I would also call it harassment. It’s putting the education of those schools and the research of their faculty under the heading of, ‘We don’t need to take them seriously.’ ”
Jonathan Raymond, the president of Trinity Western, said the report has put the school “under a cloud of suspicion” and characterized CAUT’s list as “a black list.”
Calling it an investigation, he said, “makes it appear as if there is something deeply wrong at the school” and that could put a burden on graduates in their attempt to be taken seriously outside the institution.
“There is no topic under the sun that can’t be raised. We assume faculty will have their thinking informed by their Christian faith, but we don’t influence it. They can raise all perspectives but we expect they’ll also raise the Christian perspective.”
Trinity Western, which is 48 years old, has 5,000 students and faculties with undergraduate and graduate degrees in everything from education to social work to engineering. It is accredited by the province and is also a member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which said it demands a high level of academic freedom before a school is accepted.
Mr. Raymond said they received no notification that an investigation would take place and only discovered what was going on when academics at other schools began receiving emails from CAUT. The email read: “If you are currently teaching at Trinity Western University, have taught there in the past, or have applied for a faculty position at TWU, the inquiry co-commissioners would like to have the opportunity to interview you about the institution’s faith-based practices. If you have personal experience or information that you feel might shed light on these issues, please contact the CAUT inquiry co-commissioners below. All communications will be kept confidential.”
Mr. Turk said his group sent a letter to the university, but Mr. Raymond said it was never received. “They should have come to us first,” said Mr. Raymond. “They owed us that professional courtesy. I believe they entered this with a preconceived conclusion. I think this is outright anti-Christian discrimination.”
John Stackhouse, who teaches philosophy at Regent College in Vancouver, wrote in an article in University Affairs this month that the CAUT report raises “a crucial issue that is not yet properly resolved. [Does it make] sense for a Canadian university to insist that its faculty members teach and research within the confines of its confessional statements.”
This is not the first time that Trinity Western has been put under a microscope.
In the 1990s, the B.C. College of Teachers said the school was not fit to train teachers because Trinity Western graduates would bring an anti-homosexual agenda to the classroom.
But in 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled, in an 8-1 decision, that the students could only be judged by their behaviour in the workplace and not because of their education.
In other words, there was nothing about a Christian education per se, even one that considers homosexual activity a sin, which would prejudice its students against homosexuals.
Also, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, whose membership includes 92 universities, said they have never found any issue of academic freedom at Trinity Western.
“We have no reason to believe they suppress academic freedom,” said Christine Tausig Ford, a spokeswoman for the organization, which conducts thorough investigations, including interviews with students and faculty, before allowing institutions to become members.
Mr. Turk said his group’s report does not specify how Trinity Western impinges on academic freedom.
“But the faith statement constrains who is allowed to teach. They believe the ultimate authority is the Bible. So that undermines the central aspect of what a university should be because before [the school’s teachers] look at anything, they accept certain facts as automatically true.”
Over the past 50 years, CAUT has been reactive to incidents of potential restriction on academic freedom whenever there has been a complaint.
Mr. Turk said when a complaint is received they bring it to the university’s attention. If that does not settle the issue, then an investigatory committee is struck.
In the case of Trinity Western, Mr. Turk said CAUT did not receive a complaint from anyone, nor did they choose to speak to the school first, because “it was a different kind of case.”
“We weren’t investigating wrongdoing; we were confirming the nature of the institution. We were being proactive instead of reactive,” he explained.
“We have no real authority,” said Mr. Turk. “All we can do is put a spotlight on the situation.”
However, with a membership of 65,000 university employees, the organization does have the weight to raise alarms about institutions, which is what concerns Mr. Raymond and others who are supporters of the Christian university.
The only way that Trinity Western would be removed from the new list, according to Mr. Turk, would be to drop its faith statement.
In his University Affairs article on this contentious dispute, Prof. Stackhouse appealed for room for both secular and religious institutions.
“I want to urge my fellow Canadian scholars to leave a space for the alternative … The synergy that comes from such shared intellectual commitments is simply not to be found in the secular university,” he wrote.
“Anyone who has actually worked in a secular university for more than about two weeks recognizes that there are ideological pressures there too: to conform to the preferences of one’s departmental superiors … to the fads of one’s discipline and to the priorities of granting agencies.”
(Photo: Jonathan Raymond, President of Trinity Western University in his office on campus in Langley, BC, January 14, 2010; Lyle Stafford for National Post)