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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2009

Trinity defended

I would like to comment on the Trinity Western University report by William Bruneau and Thomas Friedman (Bulletin, September 2009 and online).

CAUT has a legitimate interest in the status of academic freedom at the university. TWU joined the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in the early 1980s. It was an important step in encouraging TWU’s commitment to intellectual freedom. This issue has been a matter of concern to many of its faculty, staff, and students over the years and we have honestly addressed it. Many faculty members would not have stayed at TWU had the university not taken it seriously.

The Bruneau-Friedman report concludes that TWU “violates the commitment to academic freedom that is the foundational bedrock of the university community in Canada and internationally.”(p. 4)# I believe the report reflects a naïve and uncritical reading of the evidence of how TWU professors do research and teach.

At TWU there are a wide variety of views and understandings of the Christian faith. The information Bruneau and Friedman gathered from faculty members in the course of their investigation reflects both its diversity as well as the freedom from interference it has experienced. Their report section on history and policy covers only administrative history. So their choice to emphasize descriptive formal and informal catalogue phrases over actual experience and results of TWU faculty teaching and research is puzzling.

Like all texts, those in TWU’s calendar have a social logic requiring analysis. Even though Bruneau and Friedman harvested considerable evidence from faculty’s work and expe­rience, they ignored it in their conclusions. They failed to answer the question asked by CAUT president Penni Stewart in her October Bulletin column: What academic freedom “means in the daily practice of academic staff, departments and institutions.”

Throughout my more than 30 years as a TWU professor, the university has shown a steady commitment to academic detachment and freedom. Our scholarly peers have recognized this. The publishers of my research include Columbia University Press, Boydell & Brewer, Sixteenth Century Journal, Czechoslovak (now Czech) Academy of Sciences, Cambridge University Press, Collegium Carolinum of München, Journal of Medieval History, Österreichische Aka­demie der Wissenschaften, and the University of Toronto. The editors and their selected external readers, would not have agreed to publishing my work had it been marked by doctrinal blinkers.

TWU will need to continue its vigilance as marginal groups associated with it seek to interfere in academic freedom. Nevertheless it would be appropriate for CAUT to recognize that at this stage, the work of TWU’s faculty, whether in the classroom, lab or office, qualifies it as an authentic member of the global university community.

I think a greater danger to universities’ detached and imaginative study of the arts and sciences is the tendency of Canadian and world universities to give priority to disciplines that emphasize the practical needs and interests of society. These forces are inclined to see education as the learning of a repertoire of skills and knowledge. They are tempted to cut financing to disciplines perceived as not addressing these goals. Such shortsightedness represents a greater threat to the traditional innovative work of universities than is the commitment to the Christian faith of TWU faculty.

Jane Flax, in her brilliant 1992 essay “The End of Innocence,” points out how academia and others ought to confront the challenges of today. She argues there is no such thing as innocent knowledge. Not philosophers or scientists arguing from the authority of reason, not the theologian claiming access to transcendental revelation, nor any other assertion to possess knowledge can expect a privileged place in the inquiry into knowledge and wisdom.

In a world threatened by annihilation, Flax invites all to an open discussion, saying: “We need to learn to make claims on our own and others’ behalf and to listen to those which differ from ours, knowing that ultimately there is nothing that justifies them beyond each person’s desire and need and the discursive practices in which these are developed, embedded and legitimated.”

John Klassen
Emeritus Professor of History
Trinity Western University

Editor's note: The Bruneau-Friedman report noted that academic staff at Trinity Western University are well-qualified academics, carrying out programmes of post-secon­dary education at standards approved by relevant provincial and national authorities. On the other hand, the report noted that TWU’s “Statement of Faith,” list of “Responsibilities of Membership” and policy on academic freedom allow for unwarranted and unacceptable constraints on academic freedom.The university’s statement of academic freedom recognizes academic freedom only “from a stated perspective, i.e., within parameters consistent with the confessional basis of the constituency to which the University is responsible.” In its calendar, Trinity Western describes itself as follows: “We are a passionate, an intentional disciple-making academic community,” and “as an arm of the Church, is first and foremost an academic community of people passionately committed to Jesus Christ and to God’s purposes … (with the objective that) all members of its community may be and become knowledgeable, perceptive, principled, just, dis­ciplined and compassionate disciples of Jesus Christ,” and that “All teaching, learning, thinking, and scholarship take place under the direction of the Bible, the wholly authoritative and truthful Word of God.”

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