The Idea of a Quaker College (2)

April 17, 2012

George Fox University is a Quaker college, one of about fifteen colleges or universities that are affiliated with Friends Association for Higher Education (FAHE).  (There are also two study centers that are affiliated with FAHE.)  What it means to be a Quaker College, however, is as varied as what it means to be a Presbyterian or Catholic college.  Today, George Fox is going through a time of trial about what it means to be a Quaker college.

There are varieties of Quakers, just as there are varieties of Presbyterians and varieties of Roman Catholics.  Many Quakers do not use creeds or official statements of belief of any kind.  George Fox is affiliated with Northwest Yearly Meeting (a regional organization), however, and NWYM is inclined to have creeds.  Northwest Yearly Meeting is an evangelical branch of Friends, and Evangelical Christians across many denominations are given to having creeds.

And so, by extension, George Fox University has a Community Lifestyle Statement for students and faculty to sign and adhere.  It is that statement that is causing the current ruckus.  Among other topics, that statement addresses matters of sexuality and marriage:

Our lifestyle excludes immoral practices and calls us to transformed living as we “offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices” to God (Romans 12:1-2). In regard to sexual morality, we believe that only marriage between a man and a woman is God’s intention for the joyful fulfillment of sexual intimacy. This should always be in the context of mutual compassion, love, and fidelity. Sexual behaviors outside of this context are inconsistent with God’s teaching. We recognize these principles may conflict with the practice or opinion of some within the larger culture. We are convinced that this is God’s design for providing the most loving guidance and practice for individuals and our community.

A group of alumni and students has now formed an organization called OneGeorgeFox that sent a letter to the university’s leadership calling for full acceptance of LGBTQ people as full members of the George Fox University community.  Said the group, “We are not asking for permission to live ‘a promiscuous gay lifestyle.’ We want a spouse. We want a family. We want romance! And we deserve a community that accepts us and will nurture our relationships and our families.”  The university responded with care but reiterated the university’s official posture.  (NWYM’s official book of discipline, “Faith and Practice,” says  (p 11) “We denounce, as contrary to the moral laws of God, acts of homosexuality, sexual abuse, and any other form of sexual perversion.”)

Ron Davis, an alumnus who is now a student at Harvard Law, published a column in Huffington Post entitled “Evangelical Universities, Gay Students and Faculty Freedom.”  Davis declares his support for OneGeorgeFox, and voices alarm at the university’s declaration that faculty signatures on the OneGeorgeFox letter would violate their contractual obligations under the Community Lifestyle Agreement.  Said Davis, “This is egregious. Universities exist, in large part, to encourage truth-seeking, and the faculty form the backbone of this pursuit. That a Quaker university could display such gross epistemic hubris strongly suggests the administration has lost sight of these guiding principles.”

Davis thereby rediscovers the longstanding tension between the professional academic norm of academic freedom on the one hand, and the creedal statements of denominationally-grounded colleges and universities, on the other.  Creedal statements put some ideas beyond the reach of intellectual scrutiny.

The AAUP’s approach to that conflict is to allow requiring signatures to such creedal statements but only if the statements are fully disclosed in advance of employment or enrollment. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure includes this sentence: “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.”  Note [3] is now appended to that:  “Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement, and we do not now endorse such a departure.”

Clearly, the tension is still there. The tension can be especially acute when a student or faculty member signs such an agreement in good faith, and later, through honest seeking, finds himself or herself no longer able to affirm the statement.

At Earlham, by the way, we had no requirement of a creedal statement.  We refused even to require students to take coursework in religion: religious beliefs and practices had to be something freely chosen or refused.  The two Yearly Meetings with which we have been affiliated, Indiana (until 2010) and Western (continuing) both do have Minutes condemning homosexuality, but the college has included “sexual orientation” in its non-discrimination statement since 2000.  At Earlham the tension was between the college at the Yearly Meetings, not between the college and some of its own faculty, students and alumni.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to The Idea of a Quaker College (2)

  1. Ken says:

    I find GFU’s position stunningly backward.

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