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Ashland University: No Objectivists Need Apply

As common as tenure disputes may be within academic circles, rarely do institutions penalize professors for pursuing research outlined in their faculty contracts and expressly approved by top administrators. That’s what makes FIRE’s case at Ashland University so unique—and outrageous.

John Lewis is a classical historian whose work on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism constitutes only a small portion of his academic research. Ashland hired Lewis as an assistant professor in 2001, and in 2002 accepted a three-year gift commitment of $100,000 from the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship “to establish a fellowship in the department of history and political science at Ashland University,” the purpose of which was “to fund teaching and writing on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.” Lewis was named one of the inaugural fellows.

Ashland seemed to have no problem with accepting money for Objectivist scholarship. The university’s endorsement of that scholarship was also made explicit in a January 24, 2002 letter to Anthem Foundation President John McCaskey. Ashland’s then-president G. William Benz wrote that the $100,000 gift was “a significant commitment in support of Ashland University, its mission, and its students.” (Emphasis added.) Benz sent similar letters of thanks to McCaskey over the next few years.

Lewis’ contracts dating from August 22, 2005 to May 18, 2007 all stated that “six hours per semester [were to be] reassigned for research funded by Anthem Foundation grant,” and in fact the Anthem Foundation fellowship money was used to pay half of his salary throughout this period. Lewis was therefore not only free to pursue Objectivist scholarship, but was contractually required to do so from the fall semester, 2005, until the end of the 2007 academic year.

Lewis, who received rave reviews from students and superiors year after year, applied for tenure in the fall of 2006. But on January 26, 2007, Ashland informed Lewis that his application for tenure was denied. Ashland’s Provost, Robert Suggs, explained the denial to Lewis in a letter on February 8, writing,

…the Board of Trustees voted to deny your application for promotion because it was concluded that there had been a lack of support on your part for the University’s Mission Statement. As you know, support of the University’s mission is a term for every faculty member’s annual contract and expressly required in the Faculty Rules and Regulations as well. Specifically, concern was expressed at all levels of the process about writings, submitted by you as part of your scholarly activities in support of your application, that advocate for Objectivist views that are hostile to the University’s mission. (Emphasis added.)

While the Faculty Rules and Regulations do indeed require that professors support Ashland’s mission, there was no reason for Lewis to assume that Objectivist scholarship was opposed to Ashland’s mission. Those same Rules and Regulations also state 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” and that “[w]hen [a professor] speaks or writes as a citizen, he or she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Ashland has therefore explicitly made academic freedom a condition of professors’ employment.But increasing restrictions on academic freedom could be the product of Ashland’s turn toward evangelicalism. This past year, Frederick Finks, formerly president of the Ashland Theological Seminary, was appointed president of the university, and the Board of Trustees authorized amending the mission and identity statements this past March to emphasize that Judeo-Christian values are at the center of the university’s social and academic environment.

FIRE wrote to Ashland on March 5, stating that while Ashland, as a private school with religious affiliations, “certainly has a right to establish its own institutional character and determine the qualities it values in its professors,” the university simply 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.

After receipt of FIRE’s letter and protests from the Anthem Foundation, Ashland began to backtrack on its denial of tenure. Lewis appealed the decision, and President Finks, in consultation with the Board of Trustees, determined that Lewis did indeed deserve tenure and promotion, but that he was no longer welcome in the Ashland community. The agreement to grant him tenure and promotion was explicitly dependent upon his resignation. In a meeting with Finks on April 24, Lewis received the letter confirming his tenure and submitted his resignation.

Lewis says that he agreed to leave Ashland because he wanted to avoid litigation. He will be on leave from Ashland to assume a fellowship at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Ohio during the 2007-2008 school year while he completes his third book. Lewis will officially leave Ashland in May, 2008.

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