A Heretic in Academe

By on March 18, 2004

In March of last year, philosophy professor James Tuttle received a complaint that had been forwarded by his superior at Lakeland Community College in Ohio. The student letter-writer charged that Prof. Tuttle had made comments she deemed offensive to women and gays, and that he’d also shown signs of hostility to Muslim women. “I feel,” she wrote, “as if I have been crushed, and forced to endure views that I do not agree with . . . we are supposed to be learning philosophy.” But the main problem, the letter stressed, was the professor’s excessive reference to his religion — Catholicism. How, she wondered, would non-Catholic, liberal students “be able to defend themselves or even be able to learn in such a hostile learning environment?” The philosophy professor needed the separation of church and state explained to him; furthermore, the student said, his classes should be monitored and he should undergo counseling.

 

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The complainant could not have anticipated the speed with which college authorities would comply with her recipe for the teacher’s reform. A part-time instructor at Lakeland for the last four-and-a-half years, Prof. Tuttle, 40, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Duquesne, had relatively slight preparation for what was to come. Two years earlier, two sisters, one a lapsed Catholic, had objected that there was too much Catholicism and Christianity in his comparative religion class. Another student took offense when he noted, in a discussion about attitudes toward Christ, that some had viewed him as a crazy man. The offended student didn’t think the word “crazy” was acceptable language for the mentally disturbed. She, too, thought the instructor should undergo treatment, in this case, via sensitivity training classes.

 

The dean of the arts and humanities department was willing to dismiss the latter charge. It was the first that concerned him — too many Catholic and Christian references in class. In due course, Dean James Brown advised Prof. Tuttle he should cut down on Christianity in his syllabus, and perhaps bring guest speakers in when teaching about Catholicism rather than instruct the class himself. He could thus seem to teach from a position of neutrality — one, the dean emphatically assured him, he had better develop.

 

The dean’s warnings were considerably darker after the March 2003 complaint. He advised the teacher that he apparently suffered from closed-mindedness and that he should do nothing again that would cause a student to feel similarly offended. That was something not entirely in his control, the professor pointed out. Like every other college teacher, he knew the infinite variety of causes, from words to looks, that could move students to charge they were in a hostile learning environment. Indeed, the complaining student had detected, she said, a look of distaste on his face when she identified herself as a pagan. The professor wrote a formal answer denying the accusations, noting that he welcomed disagreement in his classes — a response that clearly failed to impress the administrators. They had the student’s word that her feelings had been offended — all the proof needed to conclude that her accusations were valid, and called for disciplinary measures.

 

To grasp the special nature of the treatment accorded Prof. Tuttle here, it’s only necessary to consider what would have happened if the accused had been a feminist professor rather than a Catholic philosopher — if, an Evangelical Christian student, offended by criticisms of Christianity, the church as subjugator of women and the like, were to file complaint charging bias and a hostile learning environment. Can one imagine — the mind reels — administrators warning this professor to cease offending and seek counseling?

 

If the administrators’ behavior toward him initially surprised Prof. Tuttle, there was reason. It is, after all, not unusual for teachers to tell students of their own deeply held political and social views. Feminist instructors routinely inform classes of their particular perspective. Similarly students have heard professors declare, “I’m Marxist, so you know where I’m coming from” or “I’m a socialist.” At Lakeland College, on the other hand, Prof. Tuttle would learn that where he was coming from was a subject decidedly off limits in the classroom.

 

Both the college president, Morris W. Beverage Jr., and Dean Brown declined to speak for the record. The administration has, however, repeatedly stated that Prof. Tuttle’s difficulties had nothing to do with his Catholicism — a denial that would have been more persuasive if the dean had not put into writing certain of his views on the matter. After being informed of the student’s complaint, Prof. Tuttle mentioned that he’d been moved to add disclaimers to his syllabi. These urged students to discuss any criticisms or discomfort that they might feel during their free exchange of views. Since Prof. Tuttle, too, wanted his students to know where he was coming from, he also included the information that their teacher was a committed Catholic and Christian philosopher.

 

The dean’s outraged response left no doubt what it was about Prof. Tuttle that so disturbed the school administrators. The bold statement of religious faith was too much for Dean Brown, who proceeded to write to the professor that he was “more bothered by the disclaimer” than by anything in the student’s complaint.

 

This comment — that the professor’s public statement of his faith was more disturbing than the alleged wrong he might have done a student — is instructive. Here was a teacher whose intellectual and moral views — matters not unconnected to the teaching of philosophy — had been shaped by his Catholicism, a fact this philosopher saw fit to share with his students. By repeating it in a course syllabus, which caused the dean to conclude that that Prof. Tuttle was beyond rehabilitation, the teacher had sealed his fate. In his letter, brimming with outrage, the dean declared that Prof. Tuttle continued to state his beliefs in the classroom, and that this was unacceptable. “The level of arrogance is unnerving . . . I think that you would be happier in a sectarian classroom.” There would be a price, the letter made clear. “For the fall semester I’ve reduced your teaching load to one section.” His classroom performance would be monitored. After he’d met with the monitor, the dean wrote, “I’ll decide whether you’ll be teaching at Lakeland College for the spring semester, 2004.”

 

With his options reduced to a last pick of courses — the Religion, Ethics and Philosophy classes he’d taught previously were now unavailable to him — Prof. Tuttle declined. Present and former students, aware of the case, have sent letters expressing amazement at the charges against a teacher whose classes they’d valued as unforgettable, a teacher eminently fair and respectful to all faiths. And how could he have taught philosophy without reference to religion, his own included, the writers wanted to know?

 

It is a question also raised by University of Pennsylvania Professor Alan Charles Kors, chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has undertaken Prof. Tuttle’s case. From the evidence of the dean’s letter, he notes, Thomas Aquinas himself wouldn’t be welcome to teach philosophy at Lakeland Community College. Nor is it likely that Prof. Tuttle will ever again teach at the school, which provided him with so memorable a lesson in academic double-standards — in all, a costly education.

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Schools: Lakeland Community College