Skip to main content

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Hank Reichman and Karen Swallow Prior’s dialogue originally printed in the Academe Blog (an AAUP publication). We have reprinted a portion of it with permission. 

Hank Reichman: Thank you for doing this, Karen. As I mentioned when we spoke, I am interested in your experiences in academia as an evangelical conservative and I think others will be too. Can you provide a brief bio for us? What attracted you to the academic life? What is it like for someone with your background and beliefs to work in fields and institutions that are not always sympathetic?

Karen Swallow Prior: Many academics suffer from imposter syndrome, and I suppose I’m no exception.  As someone born and raised in a rural middle-class, non-academic family, even going to college wasn’t a given. But I always loved school and thrived there. Majoring in English in college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do except to keep studying language and literature, so I applied to a PhD program while still an undergraduate and, whether by luck or providence, I got in. I had no idea what an academic life was like. I didn’t know any academics besides my college professors. Entering a program that was extremely centered on literary theory and criticism was especially disorienting. I felt like I had to fight to keep my love of the texts themselves, fight for the love of the books and reading. I did fight and won. But just as importantly, I discovered while in my program that I love teaching. In fact, I think that’s what I am made to do.

I have not always found a friendly reception among fellow academicians. I have a couple of amusing stories of being treated rudely based on the institutional affiliation printed on my name tag at conferences, for example, and being the sole Christian in my Ph.D. program was hard. But for the msot part, one’s work speaks for oneself in life, and I have mainly enjoyed excellent collegiality from others in my field. If I have to do more to prove myself in order to overcome biases or stereotypes, well, I’m not the only one in the world who has to do that. In fact, I think that the bar for civility and decency in this very polarized and divided cultural climate is so low that more people more easily welcome those who believe differently when we can at least share mutual respect and a desire to learn from one another. The two of us are one such example!

HR: I hope we are! Let’s talk about Liberty University. I think most non-conservative academics like me have always been pretty skeptical of its claims to be a genuine university. When we spoke, however, you stressed that your experience there was mainly positive until some things changed, interestingly largely after the administration began to privilege its online operation. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences at Liberty?

KSP: I went to Liberty immediately upon finishing my doctorate. I was young, from outside the “bubble,” as they call it, and arrived while the school was on a huge economic and academic upswing. I thrived there in the classroom and institutionally, chairing committees, becoming department chair, moving from assistant to associate to full professor right on schedule, and enjoying the best aspects of academic life, joined with the freedom and gift to teach with and from my Christian perspective. I adored my students and had excellent relationships with my colleagues and even most of the administrators.

My experience academically began to change around 2011 when the online offerings exploded, and residential classes started to be regimented and structured to replicate the online courses. Faculty had less and less say in curricular and pedagogical decisions until they had virtually no say at all. Because I was department chair at the point when this major shift began, this was even more of a burden to me. A few years later, the release time that had been given to me by the provost to research and write (which was given sparingly there since the primary emphasis was teaching) was taken away after the appointment of a new provost. It did not feel like a coincidence that my release time was eliminated after I became an outspoken critic of Trump, and many there, particularly in upper administration were full-on supporters. But I don’t know the reasons my requests for appeal were denied. This was part of my decision to leave, but not entirely. I do think I left on good terms. Ultimately, my gifts and the schools’s needs simply no longer aligned as well as they once had.

HR: More than a few secular institutions, public and private, have had an analogous experience with the growth of online education. I’m presently chairing an AAUP committee that has begun work on a new policy trying, I hope not in vain, to establish some standards and best practices that could protect academic freedom and shared governance in online programs.

The AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure includes a provision that has become known as “the limitations clause.” It states: “Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.” Liberty’s faculty handbook declares that “all employees of the University are expected to conduct themselves in matters of language and morality in a manner compatible with the Mission of the University and The Liberty Way.  Unsuitable conduct may be grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination.” Liberty also proclaims that “all of our courses are taught from a Christian perspective and our faculty sees themselves as mentors. Our mission is to Train Champions for Christ.”  These are arguably examples of such a limiting statement, in a sense exempting Liberty from AAUP standards on academic freedom. Yet Liberty offers a broad array of degree programs in subject areas distant from religion, including law, medicine, nursing, and epidemiology. The notion that these should be exempt from the protections of academic freedom on the basis of the limitations clause seems absurd.  What was your experience of academic freedom, or the lack thereof, at Liberty? And what do you think might be the appropriate role of academic freedom at other religiously based institutions, including seminaries like the one at which you currently teach?

KSP: Teaching from a Christian perspective doesn’t mean eliminating other views. It just means considering them from a certain point of view which can hardly be avoided by anyone. I honestly felt more freedom at Liberty than I had as a Ph.D. student at my state university. As a conservative (politically and theologically) Christian (the only Christian in my program, as far as I knew), I experienced some hostility.  To be sure, getting arrested for protesting abortion on the weekends between Old English classes wasn’t exactly a recipe for popularity, but still, my experience was one in which my views felt no more welcome there than yours would be at Liberty. That’s why we have many different kinds of institutions of higher learning, after all.

HR:  I understand. Back in the ’70s my left-wing activism could cause problems for me in grad school, even at Berkeley!

KSP: At Liberty I could express everything I thought and believed because my beliefs aligned with theirs. Students at Liberty are not required to share those beliefs (although most do), but faculty are, and agreeing to this requirement is part of the interviewing process and part of the employment agreement (at least for residential faculty—the requirements may be different for the thousands of online faculty employed from around the world). So, it was no hindrance or limitation to teach from the same worldview as the institution. In fact, I have taught similar courses at non-Christian institutions and felt that in those situations I had to remain superficial, teaching the same material but not delving into the transcendent truths that I believe undergird the reason, nature, and implications of the literature and language we study in my discipline.

Furthermore, Liberty is accredited by the same accrediting bodies that accredit its secular peers. Liberty students have to pass the same licensure exams as other students and compete in the same marketplace. So, in that way, we are on the same territory as our secular peers. Christian institutions—including the one where I serve now—simply educate the whole person within the context of what we believe to be the whole and eternal truth.

I think it is crucial that religious institutions be able to practice their religious beliefs, just as secular and public institutions must reflect the pluralism built into our national laws and principles. At a private, religious institution, academic freedom can be fully expressed within the framework of the institution’s doctrinal commitments when a faculty member is aligned with those commitments.

HR: I do agree that at a religiously-based school, the institution’s religious freedom will define the parameters of academic freedom differently. But let’s explore this a bit more. I once knew a young historian, fresh out of grad school at Columbia, who interviewed for a job at Brigham Young University. They did not require their faculty to embrace the Mormon faith, but they did require conformity with the Mormon Code of Conduct. That code prohibits use of tobacco and alcohol, which for this fellow presented no problem. But he balked when told that he, like many academics a dedicated coffee drinker, had to abstain from caffeinated beverages! It seems to me it’s one thing to regulate behavior, but another to regulate belief. And given the politicization of religion we see in the US today (and not only among evangelicals) I wonder whether “doctrinal commitments” (to use your term) might not become de facto or even explicit political commitments. Could a faculty member at Liberty be a Democrat, for instance? There are liberal evangelicals, after all, especially but not exclusively in Black congregations.

KSP: Well, for me, I can’t really conceive of a distinction between behavior and belief.  All institutions—even religious ones—have their own distinctives and requirements. I taught as an adjunct at a couple of excellent Catholic colleges while working on my Ph.D. I was not required there to hold to the same beliefs as those of the Catholic church. Evangelical colleges and universities, however, were often founded specifically as places where students could go to be taught by evangelicals. That’s a very specific mission.

There aren’t a lot of Democrats among the faculty at Liberty, simply because of the ethos and history of the institution and because, until recently, most of the school’s doctrinal beliefs were more closely reflected by the Republican party, at least arguably. I suppose the breakdown is close to the inverse of what you might find among faculty at secular or public universities. I definitely know a few Democrats at Liberty, more since the 2016 election.

HR: To be sure, belief and behavior are always entwined, but with respect to academic freedom I think a distinction is needed and can be critical. Under principles of academic freedom professors who hold controversial, iconoclastic, or even some bigoted views may advocate these freely in their scholarship and extramural expression (although they will not be immune from often harsh criticism in those venues), but in class they are obliged not to impose their views on students and to behave in accordance with professional standards.


Karen Swallow Prior

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Karen Swallow Prior is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018). Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Books and Culture and other places.

Hank Reichman

Hank Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay; former AAUP vice-president and president of the AAUP Foundation; and from 2012-2021 Chair of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. His book, The Future of Academic Freedom, based in part on posts to this blog, was published in 2019. His Understanding Academic Freedom has recently been published. 

One Comment

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    I am thankful to both professors for this. I don’t believe anyone can live contrary to their beliefs; such an attempt would be absurd. But, academically speaking, if I am to write an article espousing a particular perspective, the soundness of my argument must depend, professionally, on an in-depth understanding of the different perspectives governing the topic of discussion, and of any professional research completed in relation to that topic. Moreover, such an understanding needs to be reflected in my written argument, so that my perspective can gain a hearing on the part of readers, whether or not that hearing amounts to support of my perspective. What must not be included in my argument is any philosophical (political or religious) perspective which clouds my ability to clearly understand the topic I am discussing and to give due consideration of perspectives which are in opposition to mine. That is, if I am to gain and maintain professional respect in my field, I need to display in-depth knowledge of my field, including an understanding, and professional respect for, those perspectives which don’t align with mine. We do not need to agree with one another; we do need, however to respect one another, and to earn the respect we seek.