PUC Professor: Why I Invited Ryan Bell to Speak

PUC Professor: Why I Invited Ryan Bell to Speak

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Written by: 
November 2, 2015

My name is Aubyn Fulton, I have been a professor of psychology at Pacific Union College for the last 28 years, and I am the one who invited Ryan Bell to speak to my class. Those who are critical of this decision should direct all attacks at me, as the school was not involved in the invitation in any way. I did not consult with the president, academic dean, my department chair or department colleagues before issuing the invitation. For some this may seem unusual, or even, as one of my colleagues has suggested in a note on this site, unethical. I can only point out over the last 28 years that I have never once consulted in advance with any institutional supervisor about how I structure my class periods. I am aware of no requirement that I or any other faculty member do so, nor am I aware of any ethical principle that would make such notification advisable, even were it practical. I was aware that having Ryan present in my course might be controversial for some, and might cause problems for administrators; however the same could be said for many of the hours that I teach every quarter. We cannot teach effectively in fear of offending the most conservative (or most liberal) factions of our constituency. I treated my invitation to Ryan Bell precisely the way I have treated the thousands of class hours I have been responsible for preparing over the last 28 years. I understand and respect how difficult is the task of a college president. I worked very hard to find and suggest compromises that would address most of the concerns that were raised about my invitation while preserving most of the benefit of having Ryan present. All of these were rejected without comment, and it was made clear to me that the administration had no interest in working with me to find a solution.

I have no regrets about how I handled this situation; I believed two months ago, when I invited Ryan that he was an especially relevant and appropriate speaker for this particular class, and I continue to believe that. What I do deeply regret is the action taken by the PUC president to ban Ryan from campus and rescind my invitation to have him teach in my class without my permission and over my strong and repeated objections. I apologize to Ryan for the poor treatment he has been shown by my institution.

I always welcome feedback on the decisions I make while exercising my responsibilities as a teacher, and it has been a rare opportunity to receive so much unsolicited feedback in this case. As always, I have endeavored to open myself up to advice and correction from colleagues, students, administrators and other interested parties. At the same time, I have learned to live with criticism and disapproval. Higher education is not a popularity contest, and teaching decisions are not made based on what will offend the least number of people.

This comment is already long and will get longer, but I would like to state for the record several points about this episode in order to correct some misunderstandings that seem to have crept into the conversation, and make clear the context and reasons for the invitation. I am sure many will still be critical of my decision, but it seems best for such criticism to be made with a fuller understanding of the situation:

1. Discussion of this event seems most often to refer to Ryan having been invited to speak on campus, and comparisons are being made to similar controversies at other institutions involving commencement addresses or other general campus events. I am actually on record as being opposed to those types of censorship as well, including when the target is someone with whom I deeply disagree. It is important to keep in mind though that Ryan was not invited by “the college,” or to speak to some open, non-specific group of students. Ryan was invited by a teacher to speak to a formal, regular course. No one other than the teacher typically is involved in such decisions, and it is irregular in the extreme for anyone other than the course teacher to be involved in changing such decisions.

2. PUC is under no obligation to recognize academic freedom if it does not want to, but for many decades it has chosen to include an academic freedom statement in its Faculty Handbook and Faculty Contract. Academic freedom is not absolute, but if it means anything it must mean that faculty have the right to say and do things in their courses with which administration, the Board and significant fractions of the constituency strongly disagree. The decision by the PUC president to censor my class is the most egregious violation of academic freedom I have ever seen at PUC, and calls into question whether there is any meaningful academic freedom here. One can argue that my decision to invite Ryan to speak to my class was a mistake (I do not believe it was, but I have been known to have been wrong in the past); but it cannot be argued that censoring Ryan was consistent with PUC’s stated commitment to academic freedom.

3. I did not invite Ryan to persuade my students to give up their faith (this should be obvious and go without saying, but I have seen that it is not). I invited Ryan to share his personal story (his journey from fundamentalist to atheist) and to talk about his newest project (“Life After God” - which I highly recommend to interested parties) which is aimed at supporting people who are struggling with religious doubts. Obviously, supporting people struggling with religious doubts is a big part of the mission of an Adventist Christian liberal arts college as well.

4. The suggestion that the “Life After God” project is somehow inconsistent with the mission of PUC or any Adventist college or university could only be made by someone who intentionally ignores its stated purpose, which specifically not to try to persuade people to become atheists. The program also makes clear and explicit that “After God” often refers to people who are deeply committed to their faith, but are in transition from one understanding of God, that perhaps was too rigid, limited or immature, to another. No one should be surprised that an Adventist college campus is full of people in this situation.

5. I made the decision to invite Ryan to my class because in my judgment his story and current project was uniquely relevant to the specific learning objectives of the course, one of which is to help students better appreciate the tensions and the compatibilities of faith and learning. This has been a learning objective for our Department and this course for many years, and no administrator has ever challenged it. For any conversation about faith and learning to be honest, it must include the real option of arriving at an anti-faith position. To censor or ban that position is to invalidate the faith development of the majority of students. In the course I invited Ryan to speak to, we regularly schedule class periods devoted to the faith and learning conversation, almost always by people who have clear and unapologetic commitments to Adventist faith. My judgment was (and remains) that it is appropriate to occasionally invite someone to participate in this conversation that has different commitments. This is how students learn.

6. Arguments that college students are too young, unsophisticated or immature to handle presentations by atheists are insulting to these young adults and badly misunderstand what higher education, and religious maturity, are all about. In my experience, more Adventist young adults reject their faith because they have experienced a closed system unwilling to interact with differing points of view than because they have listened to people with whom they disagree.

7. The censorship of my class and the banning of Ryan Bell strengthens the atheist argument that religious faith is incompatible with intellectual honesty and exposure to a wide spectrum of perspectives and evidence. I of course am not an atheist, and I dispute the claim that faith is incompatible with an open and honest search for truth. I wrote my doctoral dissertation in psychology on mature religious faith. My argument then, and my subsequent 28-year teaching career at PUC, has been based on the premise that religious maturity is undermined by attempts at indoctrination and censorship of alternative views, and is strengthened by exposure to and genuine exploration of a spectrum of viewpoints. Mature religious faith requires open and honest confrontation with all critical voices, and is best formed in what psychologist Gordon Allport called the “workshop of doubt”. As I told my class last week, if I thought it were true that exposure to contrary positions was damaging to faith, then I would be an atheist too. Fortunately, this is not true. Sadly, the censorship of Ryan Bell at PUC last week made it that much more difficult to argue that Adventist education is anything more than indoctrinating students to parrot back the beliefs and thoughts of their elders. I wish the administrators at PUC, and many in its constituency, had more confidence in their faith, and more courage to stand for its basic values. As one of the most influential writers in my own faith development once famously wrote, it is the work of true education to train our young people to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. 

Aubyn Fulton, PhD, is Professor of Psychology with an emphasis on Clinical Psychology at Pacific Union College.


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