August 2007 – Emily Brooker, a student in Missouri State’s (MSU) School of Social Work, had religious objections to an assignment made by professor Frank Kaufman. Little did she know how much trouble her objections would cause.
According to the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which wound up helping Brooker, Kaufman told all his students to write a letter to the Missouri legislature expressing support for homosexual adoption, and for each individual student to sign his or her name to it.
As an evangelical Christian, Brooker refused to do so, and the full weight of the school’s power fell on her. She was charged with violating three of the school’s “Standards of Essential Functioning” – diversity, interpersonal skills and professional behavior.
Furthermore, ADF said, Brooker was forced to undergo a two-and-a-half hour grilling from an “ethics” committee, which asked her questions pertaining to personally-held religious beliefs such as “Do you think gays and lesbians are sinners?”
Was this an isolated and bizarre case of persecution? After all, for the last 40 years, American society has tried to make the trip from high school to college as easy and universal as possible. Everyone, it seems, is encouraged to go to college.
Increasingly, however, many Christians are discovering that they are the one group that isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms.
Hostility toward evangelicals
In May, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR), an independent, non-partisan think tank, released the results of a study titled Religious Beliefs and Behavior of College Faculty. The report was a follow-up to another study, Political Beliefs and Behavior, released by the IJCR last October, which attempted to gauge the political and ideological views of faculty.
One of the questions in the survey on religion asked professors the following question: “What are your overall feelings toward the following groups using a scale of 0-100, which goes from 100, very warm or favorable feeling, to 50, neutral, to 0, very cold or unfavorable?”
Numerous religious groups were listed in the question. Study co-author Dr. Gary A. Tobin, president of the IJCR, told the Washington Post that the question was actually designed to measure how much anti-semitism there was among faculty members on college campuses.
Instead of revealing anti-semitism, however, it was another group that seemed to attract the displeasure of professors. The report indicated that 53% of non-evangelical university faculty said their attitudes toward evangelical Christians could be characterized as cool or unfavorable.
Religious Beliefs and Behavior said, “This is the only religious group about which a majority of non-evangelical faculty have negative feelings.”
The report also said that 71% of all faculty agreed with the statement, “This country would be better off if Christian fundamentalists kept their religious beliefs out of politics.”
Amazingly, when asked if the country would be better off if Muslims became more organized politically, only 38% of faculty disagreed.
Clear case of bias
“When we ask questions like this, we’re asking the respondent to say how they feel about an entire group of people, and whatever image they have of that entire group comes through,” Tobin told the Post. “There is no question this is revealing bias and prejudice.”
Some dismissed the survey results as not necessarily indicative of true religious animus. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, told the Washington Post that the study demonstrated “a political and cultural resistance [to evangelicals], not a form of religious bias.”
The cause of this resistance? Nelson said it was probably due to “the particular kind of Republican Party activism that some evangelicals have engaged in over the years, as well as what faculty perceive as the opposition to scientific objectivity among some evangelicals.”
Tobin dismissed that argument as irrelevant. “If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews or Latinos or African Americans, there would be an outcry,” he said. “No one would say, ‘The reason they feel this way is because they don’t like the politics of blacks or the politics of Jews.’ That would be unthinkable.”
Isolated in the classroom
Others argued that, even if the IJCR survey results accurately reflected faculty antagonism toward evangelicals, that didn’t necessarily mean those feelings are manifested by classroom actions against students.
However, there is growing anecdotal evidence of discriminatory actions taken against Christians on campuses across the country. These show up in news reports about cases like Emily Brooker’s, press releases from ADF and other law centers that defend religious liberties, and the barking of watchdog groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org).
Moreover, it would not require an overly active imagination to believe that once a professor’s attitude toward evangelicals became clear in the classroom, many Christians would at least be tempted to just sit there and keep their own opinions to themselves.
Beyond individual examples and simple logic, however, there is some empirical evidence that faculty hostility toward evangelicals is a potential problem in the classroom.
In the IJCR report published last year, professors were asked, “How often, if at all, do you perceive that ethnic or religious minority students at your institutions are reluctant to express their views because they might be contrary to those held by the faculty?”
More than a fifth of faculty respondents (21%) said very/fairly often while 38% said occasionally – for a total of 59%.
Parallel experiences of political conservatives
More research conducted over the years has studied the subject of politics and ideology on campus. Those results do not portend good news for evangelicals.
For example, the Washington-based Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) released a study in January 2004 after surveying college men and women between the ages of 18 and 24. Almost a third of students said they had been forced to take a philosophical position they were uncomfortable with for an assignment.
IWF’s campus program manager, Kristen Richardson, said the survey revealed a certain level of intimidation among students when they were faced with liberal professors.
“While we all know that the majority of professors tend to be liberal,” Robinson said, “it seems to be having an effect on classroom participation.”
As a result, she said, conservative students who disagree with a professor’s point of view “shy away” from speaking up in class when they know that their view is different from the professor’s.
After questioning students attending 50 of the top U.S. colleges and universities, a survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) found the same thing.
According to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the ACTA report found that 49% of students said their professors use classroom time to advance their personal political views and “frequently comment on politics in class even though it has nothing to do with the course.”
Even worse, said the WSJ article, 29% of students said they felt they had to agree with the professor’s political or social views “in order to get a good grade.”
Such studies only add to the belief that religious conservatives can expect the same results in the classroom – and are already experiencing them.
In Brooker’s case, she had to call upon ADF to file a federal lawsuit on her behalf against MSU’s School of Social Work. According to ADF, the school settled the lawsuit by purging the grievance against Brooker from her file and forcing Kaufman to resign from his administrative duties.
But the lawsuit also resulted in the university president calling for an independent investigation of the school. According to the Washington Post, the resulting report, issued in March, criticized MSU’s School of Social Work because many students and faculty “stated a fear of voicing differing opinions,” especially about spiritual matters.
The Post’s Alan Cooperman said the independent investigators “found such a ‘toxic’ climate of intellectual ‘bullying’ that they suggested shutting down the social work school and restarting it with a new faculty.”
Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, assistant professors of sociology at Harvard University and George Mason University, respectively, believe that matters will only get worse.
Gross and Simmons summarized the results of their own study, Politics of the American Professoriate, in February this year. They said, “[W]e should expect continued conflict in the years to come between the forces of religious conservatism and the institution of the American university. …”
The authors believe this is inevitable because religious conservatives – both the minority of faculty members and evangelical students – are starting to push for change.
“Eighty percent of Americans think colleges and universities welcome students of faith – but 20% do not, and there is evidence that this is a mobilized 20%,” they said.
It doesn’t have to come down to a shoving match, however. Tobin told Cybercast News Service that the IJCR report “is an opportunity for reflection and honest debate and improvement. It’s an issue about the heart and soul of the academy. Universities should not be [places] that tolerate prejudices of any kind, even if it’s a prejudice against America’s largest religious group.”
For the Emily Brookers out there, we certainly hope so.