Words but not deeds? Religious university breaks promise on academic freedom to demote professor, endorse book-banning

January 15, 2019

Faculty at Franciscan University of Steubenville shouldn’t count on academic freedom — even though the school explicitly promises it.

That’s the troubling takeaway from recent events at the Catholic college in Ohio, where the university’s president announced last week that he would revise the school’s policy on academic freedom to allow book-banning.

The announcement that the updated policy would ban the “use of scandalous materials” comes in the wake of intense backlash against the school for defending a professor who assigned Emmanuel Carrère’s “The Kingdom” to an upper-level English class. Professor Stephen Lewis’ choice to assign the book, which describes The Virgin Mary in sexually explicit terms, was picked up by Catholic news outlet Church Militant, which condemned the material as “pornographic” and “blasphemous.”

Inside Higher Ed today quotes an anonymous source confirming that Lewis lost his position as chair of the English department over the controversy.

“[T]he professor did not intend to scandalize,” FUS president Fr. Sean Sheridan wrote in his Jan. 9 open apology letter responding to the criticism, explaining that Lewis chose the book “as a tool to contrast how Catholics and non-Catholics approach faith in literature and to prepare the students for challenging conversations with people who think like Carrère.” But, Sheridan continued, “The Kingdom is so directly pornographic and blasphemous that it has no place on a Catholic university campus. I regret that the University’s earlier statement did not make this clear.”

“Preparing students to confront challenges to their faith is certainly an important part of the education and formation we strive to provide,” Sheridan wrote. “But Franciscan University cannot, and will not, jeopardize our students’ moral and spiritual development in doing so.”

FUS’ disavowal and demotion of professor Lewis and its promise to ban “scandalous” classroom materials raise new questions about what exactly academic freedom means for professors at FUS.

FIRE’s long-held position is that religious institutions may privilege a commitment to religious doctrine above a commitment to academic freedom, just as other private institutions may prioritize other values over free speech — but they must be clear about those commitments and adhere to them.

FUS’s academic freedom policy is unacceptably inconsistent on that front, because it promises broad academic freedom while also suggesting that faculty not run afoul of church teaching.

Specifically, the policy contradicts itself by saying that it “promotes responsible academic freedom” and “opposes the promotion of propositions and values contrary to Catholic teaching,” while at the same time observing the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure — which argues that faculty are entitled to very broad academic freedom.

FUS’ policy seems to acknowledge the contradiction, while at the same time, arguing it away: “This in no way impinges on true academic freedom,” the policy states, “as the Catholic Church accepts all that is true and rejects all that is false.”

That FUS acknowledges ambiguity in its conflicting stances on academic freedom is enough to run afoul of the AAUP, which requires exceptions to full academic freedom at religious institutions “be clearly stated in writing at the time of [the professor’s] appointment.”

FUS must be clear about the promises it makes. Until they are, faculty should be cautious about believing the school’s purported commitment to academic freedom.