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Atheist revives debate over academic freedom

An atheist professor is crying foul after letting a Christian professor speak and then having his own invitation canceled.

His complaint revives the debate over academic freedom at Charleston Southern University, which was censured by an association of professors three years ago.

The complaint also raises the wider question of how officials at any university, Christian or secular, decide what limits are appropriate for its teachers.

The complaint comes from Herb Silverman, mathematics professor at the College of Charleston, an outspoken atheist. The Christian professor is Richard Johnson, associate professor of religion at Charleston Southern University.

Silverman and Johnson debated the existence of God in January and then agreed each professor should speak to the others' students.

Silverman invited Johnson to the Atheist-Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston last month. Johnson spoke to Silverman's students about Christianity, then invited Silverman to talk about atheism in his philosophy of religion class.

Silverman was supposed to speak last Monday. Johnson sent him a message canceling the talk.

"Because of two upcoming special events on campus and other complications, my department chairman has suggested that I not devote class time to your appearance before my class," Johnson told Silverman in an e-mail. Silverman complained he was being shut out because he is an atheist.

"I assume that the 'other complications' had to do with Charleston Southern University not wanting an atheist to speak to a class, just as CSU would not allow an atheist to debate you on campus," Silverman responded in an e-mail to Johnson.

The debate in January was held at Old Fort Baptist Church after the university did not grant permission to hold it on campus.

"While Charleston Southern University was pleased one of our religion professors was participating in the debate, we declined to act as host as we were not interested in creating a 'College of Charleston' vs. 'Charleston Southern University' issue," Provost A. Kennerley Bonnette told The Post and Courier.

Silverman said he was surprised CSU should think that professors represent their universities. "It had nothing to do with competing schools, because I was not representing the College of Charleston," Silverman said. "C of C is certainly not an atheist institution."


Concerning not being allowed to speak in Johnson's class, Silverman said he could not understand CSU interfering with the academic freedom of one of its professors.

"I think it reflects poorly on an academic institution that appears to allow only one point of view," he told Johnson in the e-mail. "Had the administration at the College of Charleston objected to your speaking here, I would have fought it and engaged others on campus to help keep academic freedom alive."

CSU Religion Department Chairman Skip Martin said the invitation was rescinded because CSU students had heard enough from Silverman recently.

"We will be unable to reschedule Dr. Silverman this semester," Martin said. "We feel our students have had adequate exposure to Dr. Silverman this year. The Religion Department will review the possibility of Dr. Silverman speaking to our students in the future, just as we review the possibility of any potential guest speaker in our department."

Johnson declined to comment on the situation.

"My real problem is that this has become very much a 'he said' vs. 'he said,' " Johnson said when contacted by telephone. "I'm reluctant really to say anything, mostly because it's gone further than I wish it would have."


The spat illustrates an ongoing debate among educators over whether a Christian school should put limits on academic freedom, and if so, how are those limits to be determined?

Bonnette, the provost, did not respond to an invitation to explain how not allowing Silverman speak in Johnson's classroom fits in with CSU's vision of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a nice ideal but not so easy to define when the rubber meets the road, according to Kamela Jones, vice president for communications for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents 172 colleges in 26 denominations, including Charleston Southern University.

"Just part of higher ed is different people with different opinions on what is best for the classroom," she said. "Academic freedom is a subjective term, and academic responsibility that goes along with it. It's tough to pin down in some neat little (definition). What constitutes responsible use of academic freedom is not clear cut."

Christian schools differ in their standards of what students should be exposed to. For instance, some schools don't allow their students to watch and debate R-rated films, while others have no problem.

The council takes no position in disputes over academic freedom among its members, Jones said.

"That's a part of academic freedom, that different colleges teach different things, so students have a variety of places to choose from," she said.

In some areas, Christian schools have more academic freedom than secular schools, because students at Christian schools are more free to talk about their faith in class, she said.

"Many students feel like they can't talk about the spiritual dimension in the secular classroom," Jones said. "Attending a Christian university, in effect, gives them more academic freedom, because they're able to bring in the faith dimension to the subject matter."


Even at a secular university, no professor is totally free from the limitations of officials above him. This was illustrated recently at the College of Charleston, when Provost Elise Jorgens ordered communications teacher Dave Marshall to stick to the syllabus and not allow students to show any more off-color clips in class.

Silverman is not sure that case applies to the situation at CSU.

"Jorgens at least is permitting Marshall to talk about sex or violence, even though he may not show a video clip of it," Silverman said. "In the CSU case, the issue was simply speech. It strikes me as very odd that I was allowed to speak about religion in a fundamentalist church (Old Fort Baptist Church), but not in a religion class at an academic institution after being invited by the religion professor of the class."

Academic freedom "basically has to do with a teacher being able to teach the subject as he or she sees fit in the classroom," Ruth Flower, director of the office of public policy and communications for The American Association of University Professors, said in a telephone interview.

But she also acknowledged that each community always sets some sort of limits on academic freedom.

The association subscribes to a 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure that includes the sentence: "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."

The association censured CSU in 2001 after investigating two incidents. In the first case, the university fired professor Robert Crout after he read a eulogy in the chapel blaming the university for friend and colleague Harold Overton's precarious finances, exhaustion and ultimate death. The professors' group concluded the school violated the association's positions on academic freedom and tenure by dismissing Crout without having a hearing before a faculty committee. The university also opted not to reappoint professor David Aiken after six years of faculty service. The association said failing to renew Aiken's contract showed the university has no credible tenure system.

CLARIFICATION (04/02/04): Religion Page- A story about academic freedom published on the Religion page in the March 21 editions of The Post and Courier needs to be clarified. Ruth Flower, director of public policy and communications for the American Association of University Professors, did not say that a local community outside a university should set boundaries on academic freedom, but that academic communities often set their own boundaries.

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