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Academic Freedom Conflict at PUC Makes Local Paper, Chronicle of Higher Education


The dispute between some faculty members and the administration at Pacific Union College over academic freedom and the content of lectures in the psychology department – though now largely resolved, according to those on both sides of the conflict – has captured attention beyond the confines of Adventist academia, even making the pages of the national Chronicle of Higher Education. A local California paper, the St. Helena Star published “Dispute over professor’s sex lectures rocks Pacific Union College” by Jesse Duarte this week, and earlier this month, on February 7, Robin Wilson published “Clash Over Professor’s Lectures on Sex Tests Academic Freedom at Religious College” in the Chronicle of Higher Education

The St. Helena Star story begins:

Rumors of possible disciplinary action against a longtime Pacific Union College psychology professor recently prompted an outcry among students and alumni over the college’s academic freedom policies.


The dispute related to whether statements professor Aubyn Fulton made in his lectures about sex conflicted with the conservative doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which operates the college.


Rumors spread that if Fulton were fired, the rest of PUC’s psychology and social work department faculty might resign in protest.


In a Jan. 31 posting on Facebook, Fulton said the dispute was over, and that PUC President Heather Knight had “withdrawn the key elements of a letter … in which she threatened to fire me if I did not make changes to several of my lectures and other academic communications.”


Last week Knight, in her fifth year at PUC, said she couldn’t discuss confidential personnel issues. But she said that as a private religious employer, PUC “has the right to address concerns with any of our employees.”


Knight affirmed the academic freedom statement contained in PUC’s faculty handbook. She said that while the dispute has caused “a moment of disruption” on the campus, it also sparked a useful dialogue about the role of academic freedom in the context of a religious school like PUC, where supporting the basic tenets of Adventism is a condition of employment.

And it continues:


Fulton, who has taught at PUC for 26 years, originally met with Knight in September 2013, but the dispute became public Jan. 13, when another longtime professor and chair of PUC’s psychology and social work department, Monte Butler, announced he was resigning at the end of the school year to accept a job with the Adventist-run Loma Linda University east of Los Angeles.


Butler had been present at the September meeting between Fulton and Knight, and students and alumni interpreted his resignation as a protest against the college’s treatment of Fulton.

To read the rest of the story, visit the newspaper’s website here.

When the Chronicle of Higher Education published the story about the conflict at PUC on February 7, it cited the situation as an illustration of “the challenges of protecting academic freedom while observing church doctrine at liberal-arts colleges with strong religious ties.”

The story begins:

Pacific Union College has backed down from a threat to dismiss a longtime psychology professor over lectures on sex that administrators said clashed with church teachings. But the controversy has stirred up questions over how committed the liberal-arts college is to academic freedom.


The professor will keep his job, but his department chairman resigned, citing the dispute as a key factor. The situation illustrates the challenges of protecting academic freedom while observing church doctrine at liberal-arts colleges with strong religious ties.


Pacific Union, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, is “sponsored and maintained” by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and each year faculty members must sign a contract that states: “The performance of all duties and obligations under this contract should be in harmony with the philosophy and purpose of PUC and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”


Nancy Hoyt Lecourt, the college’s academic dean, says students are at the center of determining the balance between professors’ freedom to teach and the college’s obligations to promote the church. “How do we get students thinking? We poke at them, we introduce them to new ideas, and we ask difficult questions,” says Ms. Lecourt. “But how do we get them thinking without losing their faith?”


The problems between college administrators and the psychology professor—Aubyn S. Fulton, who has taught there 26 years—began in September, when Heather J. Knight, the college’s president, called him into her office and gave him a three-page letter saying he faced dismissal. Mr. Fulton had breached his duties to uphold church teachings, he says the letter said, and Ms. Knight accused him of insubordination.


He says Ms. Knight had asked him several times before their meeting to tone down his lectures on sex, which he delivers in his introductory psychology class. But he says he has refused to change, citing the faculty handbook’s support of academic freedom.


Ms. Knight, however, says she was concerned that Mr. Fulton was condoning both premarital sex and homosexual relationships, and teaching his views as “truth,” something the handbook forbids.

You can’t read the full story on the Chronicle’s website unless you are a subscriber. But someone has posted the full article on the Stand With PUC Facebook page.

Image: Banner from the Stand With PUC Facebook page.

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