Seventh-day Adventist college fracas proves that local coverage is often better

Every week, yet another Christian college is in an uproar over clashes between doctrine and 21st century culture.

Thus, it’s no great surprise that one of North America’s 13 Seventh-day Adventist schools should be on stage now. The focus is on Pacific Union College, a Napa Valley institution ranked as America’s most beautiful college in 2012 by the Daily Beast and Newsweek. That is pretty amazing when you consider it was up against the University of California-Santa Barbara and Pepperdine.

However, its psychology department is in much disarray, according to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that tells of the department’s decision to invite Ryan Bell to speak. GR’s own Bobby Ross has written quite a bit about the publicity-seeking Mr. Bell who has gotten lots of favorable coverage for his recent decision to dump his Christian faith and become an atheist.

Even though Bell is a PUC alum, it’s not hard to imagine how inviting him onto campus would set the collective teeth of college administrators on edge.

 After forcing a psychology professor to disinvite a controversial speaker, Pacific Union College is, for the second time in less than three years, facing turmoil within and departures from its department of psychology and social work, along with renewed questions about its commitment to academic freedom.
The latest uproar at the institution, a small Seventh-day Adventist liberal-arts college in California, began when Aubyn S. Fulton, a professor of psychology, invited Ryan Bell, a former pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church who had become an atheist, to speak at a colloquium.
The invitation drew the ire of Pacific Union’s president, Heather J. Knight, who told Mr. Fulton to disinvite Mr. Bell. She also told him, Mr. Fulton asserted in a Facebook post, that he would be fired at the end of the term.
"The president transmitted to me previously that she would be firing me because of the events surrounding my decision to invite Ryan Bell," Mr. Fulton wrote. "I believe I referred to that action as the most egregious violation of academic freedom I had ever encountered over my nearly three decades as a member of the PUC faculty. I stand by that judgment."
In an interview with The Chronicle, Ms. Knight would not confirm whether Mr. Fulton’s social-media post was accurate, but said no decisions had been made to terminate anyone yet. She added that Mr. Fulton had reached out to the college to orchestrate an "amiable separation" from Pacific Union before the posting.

The Chronicle does a decent job of filling in the backstory about Fulton, including how he nearly lost his job three years ago because he openly challenged the church’s stance on premarital sex.

We hear how the head of the psych department stepped down then and now, with this latest contretemps, three more faculty are walking out. A story posted Wednesday by the Napa Valley Register says five professors in the psych and social work department have left since 2014, so the actual numbers are unclear. The Register also mentioned a contract that faculty sign pledging to support church doctrine and quoted directly from the college’s academic freedom statement about faculty not presenting as truth anything contrary to SDA beliefs.

The Chronicle should have mentioned those details. Also, the colloquium was last fall, a detail picked up by the Register but not mentioned by the Chronicle. The latter story made it sound as if this had all blown up in the past month whereas the debate has been simmering for more than six months. Another detail the Chronicle left out was that Fulton didn’t tell the college president of Bell’s impending visit until four days before the fact.

Blindsided by the invite and planning an out-of-town trip, Heather Knight had to make a quick decision, so she opted to cancel Bell’s appearance. These are all important details that a local paper, with its ear close to the ground, can get whereas a national publication, writing in sweeping terms about academic freedom, completely misses.

What the Chronicle got right was some good quotes from Knight defending her position plus the suggestion that some of the departing profs were planning to retire anyway. It also said:

The resigning professors pointed to the leadership’s interference in their classrooms. "We are limited because our handbook doesn’t allow us to speak critically," Ms. Bainum said. "Individuals who have tried to challenge it have been called into the principal’s office, so to say."

Folks at the Chronicle: Please quote from the handbook. What did faculty sign onto when they were hired? Is it right for teachers at a clearly conservative Christian school to expect they can give a platform to someone who opposes its teachings, especially Ryan Bell of all people?

Is the whole debate about academic freedom? The headline says it is, but Knight suggests near the end that it’s not and that no decisions have been made whether or not to terminate someone. Well -- it’s May, way past the time when colleges hand out contracts to their professors for next year. Did the reporter ask Fulton whether he’s received a contract or not? That would tell us a lot.

It's easy for a national publication to sweep in and tell a story along the lines of the familiar narrative of conservative-Christian-college-is-trampling-down-academic-freedom. But the reality is a bit messier and a lot of the ferment revolves around one professor. Who's the real villain here? We need more details than the Chronicle delivered.

The photo of Heather Knight talking with dissenting students was taken from Pacific Union College's Facebook page.

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