Liberty and Intellectual Diversity

Can the faculty at a fundamentalist university embody a true intellectual diversity?  In some senses, of course they can.  Depending on the school, faculty at conservative Protestant schools may disagree vehemently on important issues such as the age of the earth, the best tax system, or the proper way to structure an election.  But fundamentalist schools still face a narrower list of potential faculty members than do less strictly defined colleges.  At many conservative schools, prospective faculty members must agree to an institutional creed.  This has the desired effect of cutting out a wide range of dissenting intellectual perspectives.

Journalist Michael McDonald brought up these issues of perennial interest this morning in a Bloomberg.com article about Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

McDonald’s main interest was in the financial aspect and prospect of Liberty’s enormous and lucrative on-line branch.  As McDonald notes, the deeply conservative evangelical Protestant school is now the largest private non-profit university in the country.  For a school dedicated to a sternly fundamentalist theology, that is a remarkable achievement.

In his research for the article, Mr. McDonald asked me if I thought Liberty’s success could mean that it will become a model for mainstream universities.  As McDonald quoted in his piece,

“This dream of turning it into Notre Dame won’t work for Liberty,” said Adam Laats, an assistant professor in education and history at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. “Liberty University faculty will always be more constrained in the breadth of intellectual diversity they can welcome.”

It’s true: most colleges and universities do not require faculty to sign a strict creed.  If Notre Dame could only hire Catholics, or if my alma mater Northwestern University could only hire Methodists, they might be in a similar situation.

But Liberty’s potential faculty will have to agree with the school’s strict evangelical Protestantism, and this will always set it apart from more pluralistic colleges.

Of course, I’m not the first person to note this, by any means.  Leading evangelical historians such as Mark Noll and George Marsden have long argued that evangelical institutions differ in important ways from pluralist ones, due largely to this tradition of faculty and institutional creeds.

But already I have heard some intelligent objections.  Dan Richardson contacted me to object to my premise in the Bloomberg article.  As Mr. Richardson wrote,

“I read your comments with interest on Bloomberg concerning Liberty University. As a graduate myself of the Virginia Public University system, I found essentially zero tolerance or professors willing to even consider or give any credence/discussion to any philosophy other than relativistic, humanistic,  at best agnostic culture on campus today. There are countless examples of ‘conservative’ speakers, hassled, disinvited, shouted down at many public universities. If you truly care about the breadth of intellectual diversity, start with thyself.”

Richardson makes an important point.  Simply because the faculty of fundamentalist colleges lack some of the inherent intellectual diversity of pluralist schools, this does not mean that pluralist schools do a perfect job of encouraging true diversity themselves.

As historian Jonathan Zimmerman has asked, what would it take to get real intellectual diversity on pluralist campuses?  Do we need an affirmative action program for conservative intellectual faculty?

Sometimes the creeds in place at pluralist universities are implicit.  Sometimes they are more aggressively spelled out.  The recent flap over the funding of a Christian student group at Tufts University, for example, demonstrates the way pluralist universities’ dedication to pluralism often has confounding and unpredictable results.

Nevertheless, I stand by my statement in Mr. McDonald’s article.  Mainstream universities will have different challenges from Liberty University when it comes to welcoming a variety of intellectual perspectives.  Liberty’s dramatic financial success with on-line education does not change that.

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