Pacific Union College is a Seventh-Day Adventist school in Angwin, California—the only four-year college in the Napa Valley. And, as a religious school, it’s been subject to considerable unrest over the past few years due to a renegade professor of psychology, Aubyn Fulton. As Insider Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education report, Fulton may be on the verge of being fired—for inviting an atheist speaker to address one of his classes. It wasn’t just an atheist, either, but Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-Day Adventist preacher who left the faith after spending “a year without God.” At Spectrum, Fulton explained why he invited Bell. Here’s part of the reason:
I did not invite Ryan to persuade my students to give up their faith (this should be obvious and go without saying, but I have seen that it is not). I invited Ryan to share his personal story (his journey from fundamentalist to atheist) and to talk about his newest project (“Life After God” – which I highly recommend to interested parties) which is aimed at supporting people who are struggling with religious doubts. Obviously, supporting people struggling with religious doubts is a big part of the mission of an Adventist Christian liberal arts college as well.
. . . I made the decision to invite Ryan to my class because in my judgment his story and current project was uniquely relevant to the specific learning objectives of the course, one of which is to help students better appreciate the tensions and the compatibilities of faith and learning. This has been a learning objective for our Department and this course for many years, and no administrator has ever challenged it. For any conversation about faith and learning to be honest, it must include the real option of arriving at an anti-faith position. To censor or ban that position is to invalidate the faith development of the majority of students. In the course I invited Ryan to speak to, we regularly schedule class periods devoted to the faith and learning conversation, almost always by people who have clear and unapologetic commitments to Adventist faith. My judgment was (and remains) that it is appropriate to occasionally invite someone to participate in this conversation that has different commitments. This is how students learn.
Sadly, that’s not how students at a religious school are supposed to learn. At Pacific Union, they’re apparently supposed to absorb the dictates of the faith, and never, ever challenge it. So, when the College president Heather Knight heard about the invitation to Bell, she simply rescinded it, ordering Fulton to disinvite his atheist speaker. Then, according to a post on Fulton’s Facebook page, Fulton was told he’d be fired:
This isn’t the first time Fulton has crossed swords with the college. In 2013, he was threatened with firing for supposedly teaching a class that questioned the Church’s ban on premarital sex. That caused two members of his department to resign (one was going to retire anyway), and the chairman of Psychology to step down.
Is it okay for Pacific Union to fire someone who shakes the faith of its students? Normally that’s seen as a prerogative of religious schools. You may remember a professor at Wheaton College who was recently asked to leave after she not only wore a hijab, but said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Heresy!!!! Allah ≠ Christian God!
But, according to Fulton’s Spectrum piece, his College includes an academic freedom statement in both the faculty handbook and faculty contracts. I don’t know exactly what it says, but Fulton argues that it permits him to at least challenge his students’ beliefs. I agree.
The President, of course, denies that this is an abrogation of academic freedom—it’s simply an adherence to faith:
“My decision to ask to have Ryan Bell disinvited was not an infringement on Dr. Fulton’s academic-freedom rights, not an act of censorship, not even an attempt to overprotect our PUC students,” [President Knight] said. “It was a decision to honor the spiritual mission, goals, and aims of our faith-based institution. We are allowed to make those kinds of distinctions in terms of what kind of acts on campus further our religious aim and which do not.”
As the saying goes, that’s a distinction without a difference. But it is a difference between a liberal secular education and a liberal religious education: the former must challenge ideas; the latter must avoid such challenges.
Knight, however, denies that she’s already made a decision to terminate Fulton. For his part, Fulton maintains that he remains a believer, but that his College’s response shows the intellectual weakness of his religion, which simply cannot abide the challenge posed by a one-hour session with a former Adventist. As he said in Spectrum:
The censorship of my class and the banning of Ryan Bell strengthens the atheist argument that religious faith is incompatible with intellectual honesty and exposure to a wide spectrum of perspectives and evidence. I of course am not an atheist, and I dispute the claim that faith is incompatible with an open and honest search for truth. I wrote my doctoral dissertation in psychology on mature religious faith. My argument then, and my subsequent 28-year teaching career at PUC, has been based on the premise that religious maturity is undermined by attempts at indoctrination and censorship of alternative views, and is strengthened by exposure to and genuine exploration of a spectrum of viewpoints. Mature religious faith requires open and honest confrontation with all critical voices, and is best formed in what psychologist Gordon Allport called the “workshop of doubt”. As I told my class last week, if I thought it were true that exposure to contrary positions was damaging to faith, then I would be an atheist too. Fortunately, this is not true. Sadly, the censorship of Ryan Bell at PUC last week made it that much more difficult to argue that Adventist education is anything more than indoctrinating students to parrot back the beliefs and thoughts of their elders.
Shame on Pacific Union College. Fulton is too good for them.