Friday, July 06, 2007

Ashland University reenters the Dark Ages

Yesterday, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Dr. John Lewis' recent travails at Ashland University (subscription required). For those who are unaware, here is a brief recap: After initially denying Lewis tenure this spring because Lewis supports Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, Ashland reversed itself, granting Lewis his tenure, but only the condition that he offer his resignation. Ashland acknowledged that Lewis has a superlative research and teaching record and did not proselytize his views in the classroom, yet the mere fact that Lewis is an Objectivist was enough to disqualify him from teaching at Ashland.

If this strikes you as odd, it gets even better: Ashland accepted money from the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship so Lewis and former Ashland professor C. Bradley Thompson could concentrate on Objectivist research.

Ashland's conservative leaders argued that Lewis threatened the University's Judeo-Christian mission. This claim is disingenuous; Lewis teaches classical history, not religious morals and as his spring talk at George Mason attests, Lewis is an outspoken advocate for religious and philosophic freedom and against religious tyranny. Are Ashland's standards such that it cannot tolerate an advocate for reason, tolerance and individual rights on its faculty?

And what will Lewis' dismissal mean for other Ashland faculty who fail to sufficiently toe this newly emboldened Christian line? For example, this Ashland professor teaches (or should I say dares to teach) a course on the Bible as literature. He explicitly states that his course will "read the Bible as a literary text, similar to other writings from the ancient and classical world, operating under the assumption that the Bible is a human document, an anthology of writings put together by human beings over time" (emphasis mine). Does this professor now have to fear that Ashland University's holy warriors will force him to resign too?

In my view, Ashland University's decision to force a professor like John Lewis' to resign means that this university has relegated itself to being little more than a Bible college for politically correct Republicans. If that is their wish, so be it, yet I wonder just how many of its faculty and students have signed up for that mission.

18 comments:

JR said...

But last I heard, Objectivism (particularly in its ARI version) is not exactly welcoming of different viewpoints either.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

I don't think that this is a valid comparison at all. ARI exists solely to promote Objectivism; it has no ancillary mission beyond that and it is explicit in its operation.

In contrast, Ashland University has a broader mission; it exists to prepare its students for life. Ashland claims that it is affiliated with the Brethren Church and promotes "Judeo-Christian" values, yet since Ashland does not purport itself to be a Bible college, one assumes that it is open to ideas that are not explicitly religious. After all, most religious-based institutions differentiate themselves from secular institutions by offering courses in their sect's religious beliefs—not by drumming out non-religious viewpoints.

My view is that only the emboldened resurgence of religious fervor in America can explain Lewis' treatment as the hands of his former employer. In another time, I doubt that Lewis' tenure application would have even been controversial.

JR said...

But Ashland claims to be a school that promotes certain religious values (Judeo-Christian) and one can assume that students who go there, their parents who pay the bills, and people who donate expect the school to uphold certain values. At a minimum, this would preclude atheist professors.

This is just like the ARI. ARI carries out its mission in a way that is far more restrictive than Ashland. Again, that is apparently what its donors expect when they contribute.

In a free society, private organizations can set their own rules.

Michael Smith said...

No one is denying a private organization's right to set its own rules. However, to state that what Ashland has done “is just like the ARI” is to equate acting on the basis of faith and acting on the basis of reason -- as if the two were equally valid and moral.

A private hospital may hire anyone it wishes. However, if a hospital began to fire its doctors and replace them with faith healers and practitioners of witchcraft, one would not say that doing so “is just like” another hospital that refuses to hire quacks and imposters. In fact, one would conclude that the former is not actually dedicated to curing illness and does not deserve to be called a hospital at all. Honesty demands that it drop that title altogether.

By removing a pro-reason history professor on the grounds that his mere presence threatens their faith-based values, Ashland has chosen superstition over knowledge. To the extent that it follows this policy, it repudiates the very faculty -- namely, reason -- that makes education possible and useful. By doing so, it forfeits the right to call itself an institution of learning. Any way you look at it, that is an enormous step backwards.

JR said...

Part of what a university does is to expose students to different ideas, and the ARI types are not particularly good at that. My experience with them is that they often ridicule ideas that they never have studied in depth. (Will there be a single word of criticism of Rand or Peikoff at the latest OCON?) On the other hand, many religious schools I'm familiar with spend a large amount of time teaching students about secular ideas and philosophies they don't agree with.

Also, it is rather debatable how "pro reason" Lewis is. Some very rational people find his foreign policy views quite irrational. Or, to take another example, I am not a religious person but I consider Thomas Aquinas more worthy of study than Ayn Rand. Does that make me irrational?

Anonymous said...

Yes it does.

And Dr Lewis never promoted Objectivism or atheism in his classes. He taught his classes objectively, not polemically.

The students have lost a great value.

Also JR are you kidding me with all of this? Nice logical fallacy. I guess studying Aquinas didnt help you with your reasoning skills.

ARI's objectives are totally different from what an educational establishment would have. ARI specifically promotes Objectivism. This would necessarily eliminate that which is not a part of Objectivism. This is completely reasonable. ARI does not explicitly provide education; that is properly the realm of a college.

Do you honestly not see the difference?

--Marnee

JR said...

Let me give you another example -- Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden. Any "rational" person could have told her that this was a horrible idea, likely to end in disaster. Hell, 95% of the irrational people could have told her the same. Yet if you read her diaries, there is no reason to think she ever questioned this. Wasn't she engaged in evasion on a massive scale?

JR said...

ARI does not provide education?

Welcome to the Objectivist Academic Center—the OAC—a program of the Ayn Rand Institute offering classes on Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.

The first and only educational institution of its kind, the OAC offers a systematic program of instruction in the essentials of Objectivism and in the nature of objective thought and communication.

We seek individuals with an interest in Ayn Rand’s ideas and a desire to help effect cultural change by learning and spreading them. Our mission is to help develop the intellectuals of tomorrow: the lecturers, teachers and writers who will uphold reason in the culture. Uniquely valuable in today's intellectual climate, the training we provide at the OAC cannot be found elsewhere; no college or university currently offers a curriculum in Objectivism.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

>Part of what a university does is to expose students to different ideas, and the ARI types are not particularly good at that.

This claim doesn't make sense; the Institute is not a university. Universities exist to teach students and engage in research according to the direction of the University's board of directors. In contrast, the Institute exists solely and explicitly to advance Ayn Rand's philosophy.

And in further contrast, consider the position taken by Founders College, where several principals are animated at least in part by Objectivism, but which specifically eschews any role as a proselytizer for Objectivism. They properly see their role as introducing their students to the key ideas and questions (including ideas that run counter to Objectivism) and having students make up their own minds over what ideas and principles will guide their life. I agree with this pedagogy; it makes sense on the simple grounds that individuals are responsible for their own choices, and a good education provides them with the facts they need to make a informed ones.

>Let me give you another example -- Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden. Any "rational" person could have told her that this was a horrible idea, likely to end in disaster.

Whom Ayn Rand loved and why was her business. There is nothing in my mind that convinces me that it was a "horrible idea" for Rand to fall in love with Brandon as he is supposed to have presented himself, or to consider him an enemy when his true character became clear to her. Rationality does not imply prescience; one can be completely and still fail to accurately judge things, especially something as difficult to ascertain as a viciously deceptive lover.

>Wasn't [Rand] engaged in evasion on a massive scale?

In my opinion, no. As James Valiant's excellent book "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" evidences in no uncertain terms, when Ayn Rand had knowledge, she acted accordingly.

JR said...

But FC isn't associated with the ARI. A closer comparison is OAC, which is. The faculty is 100% Objectivist (ARI type only). And the OAC offers courses in history and science, where having an Objectivist professor wouldn't seem necessary. Some of the courses are transferrable for credit.

As far as Rand goes, whether Branden was a good or bad guy (and whether Rand knew anything about his bad side), the whole situation was bound to end in disaster for all concerned.

Michael Smith said...

JR said:

Part of what a university does is to expose students to different ideas, and the ARI types are not particularly good at that. My experience with them is that they often ridicule ideas that they never have studied in depth.

Also, it is rather debatable how "pro reason" Lewis is. Some very rational people find his foreign policy views quite irrational.

Or, to take another example, I am not a religious person but I consider Thomas Aquinas more worthy of study than Ayn Rand.

As far as Rand goes, whether Branden was a good or bad guy (and whether Rand knew anything about his bad side), the whole situation was bound to end in disaster for all concerned.

JR, as the statements above demonstrate, your comments are a collection of unsupported assertions. You've offered no evidence, reasons or logic to support any of the claims above.

Your tactic is to respond to all arguments by simply making additional unsupported assertions. Such a tactic is evasion, not argument, and as long as you stick to it, any further discussion of your claims is a waste of time.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

I agree that JR's comments in this thread are not worthy of serious consideration. The Institute's philosophy training program is second to none; nowhere else can one examine the history and role of philosophy in man's life with as much objectivity and commitment to fact as they can via the Institute's programs. To turn around and claim that the Institute should disassemble its program and hire non-Objectivists to teach future Objectivist intellectuals something as important as the history of philosophy is absurd. To then throw in Rand's affair with Nathanial Brandon as some sort of proof that Rand was unable to follow her own philosophy (especially when the evidence clearly shows the opposite) is equally absurd.

If JR has disagreements with Objectivism or the conduct of its adherents, that is fine, but I suggest that he clearly state these disagreements, rather than present them as a stream of unsupported assertions that have no value in discussion. Otherwise, I and others will simply ignore what he has to contribute on this topic.

Wei-wei Wang said...

There's more coverage on this story on the FIRE's torch blog:

http://www.thefire.org/index.php/article/8226.html

Bill Bucko said...

"If JR has disagreements with Objectivism or the conduct of its adherents, that is fine, but I suggest that he clearly state these disagreements, rather than present them as a stream of unsupported assertions that have no value in discussion. Otherwise, I and others will simply ignore what he has to contribute on this topic."

I'd say "Amen," but then JR would be sure to jump in and say: "Aha! I KNEW Objectivism was a religion!"

Lyssa said...

It is not unheard of for a university to deny tenure specifically on the basis of ideology. For example, Thomas Pangle (author of "The Spirit of Modern Republicanism", which was once sold by Second Rennaissance Books) was denied tenure by Yale because Pangle is a "Straussian". (Note: I don't recommend Pangle in general, apart from the above book.)

That said, I doubt there has been, in recent decades at least, such a stark conflict over tenure--on the basis of religion vs. secularism (and *Objectivism* in particular). Ashland's actions are indeed a call for a new Dark Ages.

Another Anonymous Fellow Traveller said...

Cry me a river. A bright man like that can work elsewhere. Since he's not in a protected class (per the legal definition at federal or state levels) he can certainly be denied tenure for his beliefs. Sure, we might think Ashland is being ridiculous, but retreating to the Dark Ages? It's their prerogative. Let's not condescend.
My own employer might decide to terminate me for my Objectivist beliefs, and if so, I'd get a job elsewhere.
I do not see why this deserves to be a cause celebre among us. In fact, I'd go so far as to say Mr. Provenzo's rhetoric was more emotional than I've usually seen from him.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

I disagree with your assessment; Ashland University has failed to live up to its own rules and regulations in its treatment of John Lewis. This is an appalling breach of trust and I say the University deserves to be condemned for it.

In the space of a few short years, Ashland went from a university that accepted a $100,000 dollar grant from the Anthem Foundation so two of its faulty could perform research related to Objectivism to one that denied one of those faculty-members tenure on the grounds that he actually performed the research specified in the Anthem grant.

Ashland University’s acceptance of Anthem's grant plainly implies that Objectivist research accords with Ashland’s institutional values. Ashland’s Faculty Rules and Regulations’ section on academic freedom states that "[t]he teacher is entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results subject to the adequate performance of his or her other academic duties." Yet clearly Ashland University’s leaders think that their new evangelical fever grants them license to dishonor their own agreements and overturn their own standards. That's disturbing, and if John Lewis and the Anthem Foundation knew about it in advice, I'm sure they would have focused their efforts elsewhere.

And as Tara Sweeney from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education observed in her excellent letter to Ashland's president on this issue:

"As a private university, Ashland certainly has a right to establish its own institutional character and determine the qualities it values in its professors. But Ashland cannot guarantee rights to its professors and then deny those rights. The decision to withhold tenure based on the determination that Objectivist scholarship exhibits a lack of support for Ashland’s mission contravenes Ashland’s stated commitment to academic freedom, contradicts its willful acceptance of a significant amount of money from the Anthem Foundation, and defies Professor John Lewis’s contractual obligation to pursue Objectivist scholarship."

I agree, and that's why I think Ashland University is headed back to the Dark Ages.

Nightingale26 said...

Ashland University should be deeply embarrassed and ashamed - deeply.