Ethos may be a foe to freedom

March 16, 2007

The governance of some Christian institutions poses a potential threat to research, reports Melanie Newman

How might an academic fare at Canterbury Christ Church or Chester University if their research discovered that children of same-sex couples do better educationally than those in traditional families?

Dennis Hayes, head of Canterbury's Centre for Professional Learning, thinks research on gay studies, atheism and subjects that oppose Christian doctrine would never take place at these Anglican institutions.

He is not able to provide concrete examples, but Dr Hayes, founder of the Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF) campaign and president of the University and College Union, believes that the restrictions to academic freedom in both universities' articles of governance mean that certain subjects may be seen as off-limits by their academic staff.

The articles say academics' right to question received wisdom is subject to a requirement not to undermine the universities' ethos as colleges founded by the Church of England, or their codes of conduct. "There is no formal restriction on particular subjects - such as gay studies - but you never know what will be deemed inappropriate," Dr Hayes said. Canterbury Christ Church hit the headlines this year after plans to continue with its ban on same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on campus were revealed. The CoE's position on homosexuality made it wrong to conduct lesbian and gay "marriages" on university premises, it explained. In contrast to the university's openness in that regard, Dr Hayes said, restrictions on academics "probably happen quietly".

Warren Swain, lecturer in law at Durham University and a signatory to the AFAF campaign, said the requirement not to undermine the university's ethos was worryingly vague. "This assumes that there is a single ethos," he said.

"There are many strands of opinion in the CoE."

In an international debate that has threatened the break-up of the Anglican Church, some evangelicals regard homosexuality as sinful, while the more liberal wing of the Church takes a more relaxed view. "There is a risk that any decision (about research that may conflict with the religious ethos) will be highly subjective and depend on those making the decision," Dr Swain suggested, adding: "The term 'undermine' also seems a bit vague. When does something undermine, as opposed to challenge, the ethos?"

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, backed the academics' stance. "There are many higher education institutions that have Christian origins yet fully support academic freedom. Publicly funded universities cannot use their origins to impose restrictions on what can be thought and said on campus," she said.

A spokesman for the CoE said: "Christian ethos has served the cause of learning for centuries - academic and spiritualJinquiry are both about a search for truth. There are many, many noted scholars who are or were Christians and whose faith isJor was the wellspring of their curiosity."

Of the 11 universities in England that started life as CoE colleges only Canterbury and Chester demand that academics should not undermine their ethos.

Jim Durrant, vice-principal of Bishop Grosseteste University College, said that the institution has nothing in its articles of governance that would limit academic freedom.

He said: "We are an Anglican college that accepts all faiths and none, and I think that extends to academic freedom. We would not want to stifle academic freedom for stifling's sake."

But not all signatories to the AFAF campaign see anything wrong with Canterbury and Chester's stance.

Jonathan Mobey, a general practitioner who is studying at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in preparation for ordination in the CoE, said: "Not only is it reasonable that an institution requires its staff to respect its ethos, but I believe that in this case the requirement enhances rather than diminishes academic debate." The university is merely insisting on "respectful engagement", he suggested, as opposed to destructive discourse.

"It is Britain's historic Christian foundation that has enabled it to be tolerant of dissension and open to public debate," he said. "The advancing secularist agenda, while purporting to be tolerant, turns out to be the opposite."

Dr Mobey cited the ban by Edinburgh University of a course run by the Christian Union, which taught traditional Christian sexual ethics, on the grounds that it breached the university's equality and diversity policy.

Elsewhere, the question of whether a publicly funded higher education institution should proclaim adherence to Christian values is proving controversial.

Cumbria Institute of Arts is in the process of merging with a number of institutions to form the University of Cumbria. St Martin's College, which was founded by the CoE, is the largest player in the merger, and the university will adopt the college's mission statement, which begins: "Fully committed to inclusivity and accessibility, the University of Cumbria will reflect the Christian values and the creative traditions on which it was founded..."

Journalism student Rashid Adamson said: "Many students and staff are outraged that they are losing their secular identity and feel the mission statement is an affront to their liberty and artistic freedom."

Academic staff have complained about being forced into joining a faith-based institution without their consent.

Peter Nixon, vice-principal of Cumbria Institute of the Arts, said: "The university will reflect the traditions of St Martin's without becoming a faith-based institution,Jjust as it will also reflect the creative traditions of Cumbria Institute. ThereJwill be no restrictions on academic freedom."

Canterbury Christ Church has made it clear that to date no academic has been disciplined for undermining its ethos. In the US, where higher education institutions with religious bias are more common, there is a clear understanding that individuals in these institutions will toe the line.

A philosophy tutor at Brigham Young University in Utah was told his contract would not be renewed after he wrote a piece in a local newspaper in June 2006 supporting same-sex marriage.

Brigham Young, affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, confirmed it had made the decision because the tutor had publicly opposed the Mormon church's leaders. The university's statement on academic freedom notes that everyone who works and studies at BYU subscribes to an honour code so that the university may "provide a university education in an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of the Church".

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

WHAT FREEDOM DOES LAW ALLOW?

* Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988 states: "University commissioners shall have regard to the need to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions"

* The Act does not apply to post-1992 universities, although most have adopted its provisions on freedom of speech in full

* It is not clear from the Act whether academic freedom extends to criticising a university's management. This point has not been clarified in the courts.

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