Philosophy Canceled at Southwest Baptist University


Is the administration at Southwest Baptist University (SBU) scared of philosophy?

SBU president Eric A. Turner and the school’s Board of Trustees have decided to end the philosophy program there, which was housed in the university’s Redford College of Theology and Ministry. This means eliminating all philosophy courses and refusing to renew the contract of their sole philosophy professor: Zach Manis, a tenured faculty member who has been with the institution for 16 years, and who will be leaving at the end of this one.

The university has not declared financial exigency.

The decisions appear to be tied to increasingly strict religious oversight of the school by the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), with which it is affiliated. A couple of years ago there was a case of what might be called “doctrinal espionage” at the school: apparently a professor of religion, Clint Bass, had for years been gathering “intelligence” on his colleagues’ supposed deviations from his own view of correct Baptist doctrine, which he then reported to the MBC in an attempt to get them fired. He himself was then fired by SBU, and this appears to have initiated further controversy over how the university should be run.

There’s commentary on all of this by Professor Manis, who was one of the targeted professors, here. He frames it as part of a dispute over the purpose of a Christian liberal arts education. On one side is the view that such an education should consist in “indoctrination”:

On the indoctrination model, a Christian education is one in which professors stand before a class, and present to the students a set of views (no doubt, the professor’s own theological opinions on matters great and small) as indisputable facts that the students shall accept, on the professor’s authority, and repeat back to him/her on an exam, perhaps as proof of the student’s fidelity to doctrinal purity as the professor understands it. 

On the other side is that such an education is about “equipping students to think for themselves about deep questions of enduring significance for their lives, including (especially) their faith”:

There is a great deal of lip-service paid to “critical thinking” these days, but the reality of actually trying to foster it in students requires that students be exposed to a wide variety of topics, ideas, controversies, and opposing views. It is not fostered by “teaching” students in the manner discussed above—the method of indoctrination. It is fostered by introducing students to questions, contemporary debates, philosophical and theological problems, etc. and helping them to appreciate what the issues are and why people may reasonably disagree about them. It goes on to consider arguments on both sides of an issue (in some cases, many sides), as well as counterarguments and critiques of each side. And it culminates in equipping students with a method by which they may evaluate these competing arguments for themselves, and to arrive at conclusions in a way that is careful, reasoned, well-informed, and capable of being rigorously defended, all while still appreciating the merits of an opposing viewpoint. This is not relativism, or subjectivism, or postmodernism, or any of the other boogeymen that haunt the imaginations of Christian fundamentalists. This is, quite simply, what it is to engage in critical thinking, and what it is to equip students to do the same.

The following passage foreshadows recent events:

My classes have always been, and will always be, for as long as I have the distinct privilege of being a professor at SBU, a safe place for students to explore ideas, and in particular ideas about important matters pertaining to the Christian faith. My classes will never be used as a platform for indoctrination—regardless of anyone’s preference or demands to the contrary. 

Earlier this month, the university announced it will be requiring all professors in its Redford College of Theology to affirm three new creedal statements if they wish to keep their jobs.

[Note: The original version of this post reported that Dr. Manis has been fired; he was not. Rather, the university is not renewing his contract.]

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Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
7 months ago

Is this further evidence that the real threat to [insert favorite value] is the overrepresentation of liberals and cultural marxists in academia? Oh wait…

Let’s hope heterodox academy and FIRE are on it! Is anyone keeping track of all the philosophy TT and tenured faculty being laid off – most of whom, presumably, are liberal – as a result of admin or local government decisions which are religious, conservative or both? [serious question]

[insert sad emoji]Report

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
7 months ago

I’m not sure if the remark about FIRE was intended sardonically, but this is exactly the kind of thing they would keep track of. If you browse their case archives, you’ll find plenty of examples where its people on the left whose rights were being violated. A couple of recent examples here and here.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Daniel Greco
7 months ago

Yes, that’s why I added ‘serious question’. I’m genuinely interested. I should look it up. I know that’s what FIRE does but I also know different events get amplified on social media. Report

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
7 months ago

Sorry, I’m not always so good with tone on the internet. That said, I don’t know if FIRE has a searchable database. I’ve only seen a list of cases sorted by date.

I completely agree that we’re probably getting a misguided picture of this stuff if we treat what goes viral on social media as a representative sample of what’s actually going on.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Daniel Greco
7 months ago

No worries! As noted, my comment wasn’t a model of lucidity.

I seem to remember reading on Heterodox Academy a few years ago about data from FIRE that faculty left were more likely to be fired (presumably for political reasons) than faculty on the right. Now, since base rates are so different it’s not super clear what to do with such findings but it at least doesn’t support the narrative. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
7 months ago

My guess is that FIRE wouldn’t be too concerned about this case, because SBU doesn’t claim to offer unrestricted academic freedom. (Their ‘Core Values’ page describes SBU as ‘committed to scholarly endeavor, under God, seeking a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility.’) FIRE is fairly clear and consistent that they defend academic-freedom rights either (i) when they’re constitutionally guaranteed (as at any public university) or they’re actually promised by the university’s stated policy (as at pretty much any R1 institution, but not consistently at some smaller religious colleges). See https://www.thefire.org/liberty-university-free-speech-and-the-private-university/ .

(I don’t have any connection with FIRE, I’m just going on their public-facing material.)
Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

Good point. Everything is in ‘proper balance’ here either way this doesn’t make the case much less concerning. Like the recent Baylor case I think, learning that a fair number of religious schools are not offering real academic freedom should be cause for concern. If it’s not cause for concern then I don’t obviously see why alleged over representation of liberals is a concern as long as it doesn’t conflict with academic freedom. I guess one reply is, it still conflicts with the stated or tacit goals of few inquiry, the pursuit of truth, the impartial education of students and such, at most of our institutions of higher ed (setting aside say Liberty U and some religious schools). Maybe, but the consequences count. It’s not clear what the impact of the alleged over representation is, but I can easily imagine the impact of schools deliberately designing their curriculum and faculty to indoctrinate students, or indirectly doing so by firing undesirable faculty.

I really don’t know, but so far I’ve been puzzled by the double standards that seem to apply to these two issues. There may be a principled way to justify the distinction but I haven’t seen it yet. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
7 months ago

I don’t think FIRE cares about overrepresentation of liberals; I don’t think it cares about underrepresentation of women; I don’t think it cares about the politicization of the hunt for a COVID vaccine or the instability of the Middle East. It has a quite specifically defined remit – academic freedom on campus – and none of those issues are related to it. (And in general, I think it’s good for non-profits to have clearly delineated remits and stick to them.)

*I* care about underrepresentation of conservatives on campus, for broadly similar reasons that I care about underrepresentation of women on campus: I think it’s bad for our research and teaching goals, which benefit from diversity and the presence of role-models. (In the latter case I also have more directly moral concerns about justice; I’m less sure about the former case.) But these aren’t academic freedom issues; no-one’s academic freedom is being harmed if we don’t hire enough women or enough conservatives.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

I don’t think we disagree — I have to write from my phone, sorry if the posts come out poorly. FWIW I also think it’d be good to have more ideological diversity on campuses, and I also think this is not an issue of academic freedom. The reason I brought them together is because that’s not infrequently how the issue is framed (when say someone faces backlash/disciplinary action for views that are controversial in academia), and that’s why there’s not infrequently convergence between HtDx and FIRE. I guess my worry is that many people see liberals as the main threat to academic freedom when they’re clearly not. Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
7 months ago

If one thinks this silencing/crackdown on speech on the right is a completely different phenomenon or unrelated to the increasing intolerance on the left, one isn’t paying attention. These “sides” don’t cancel each other out; they feed off of each other and erode academic freedom. If we genuinely care about academic freedom we shouldn’t act as if our ideological opponents are acting in bad faith when they call attention to its erosion in ways that we might be less inclined to notice or care about. Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Prof L
7 months ago

That sounds fair. You might be right that they feed each other off. I don’t know, maybe, but surely the erosion of academic freedom is important either way (that’s my point!). I don’t think anyone’s acting in bad faith, really. I just think the enemy is not what it seems, or at least that the left behaving badly is manifestly not exclusive of frequent bad behavior on the right.Report

dmf
dmf
7 months ago

doesn’t sound like they’re afraid just have a different mission (no pun intended)
doesn’t take much “critical” thinking to see why they wouldn’t want to promote such views/standards…Report

Actual SBU Alumnus
Actual SBU Alumnus
7 months ago

As a almunus of SBU and friend to professor Manis, none of you have a clue what you are talking about. None of the fired SBU teachers were remotely liberal in their politics or theology. The fact that you only know theology as “liberal” (evil bad guy who doesn’t agree with your doctrine) and conservative (very very good guy, agrees with you on everything) shows that you desperately needed an actual Christian philosophical education. The hostel takeover of SBU was political and was rife with bitter grudges held by former sbu teachers on the mbc and the arrogance of a junior professor who thought he deserved to be made chair because he had a degree ftom Oxford. Doctrine was always an excuse to hurt their enemies.

Keep your fideism to yourself and stop forcing it on others who are actually trying to love God with all their heart and mind.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Actual SBU Alumnus
7 months ago

You obviously know more than we do. I phrased my comment poorly. I have no idea if the professor fired was politically ‘liberal’ and I’m happy to grant he was not. My only point was that the threats to academic freedom and intellectual diversity are not necessarily where many people think they are (see a recent thread).Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
Reply to  Actual SBU Alumnus
7 months ago

Actual SBU Alum,

You seem very angry at the readers of this blog, and I’m not sure I understand why (FWIW, since you indicate your belief that this is relevant: I’m a graduate of an evangelical Christian college, I have M.A. from Fuller Seminary, an M.Div. from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, and I worked as an ordained Southern Baptist minister and with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship [though I’m an atheist now]). The original post links to Dr. Manis’ commentary on the issue and part of it is quoted directly. Everything is sympathetic to Dr. Manis, who lost his job, and seems to express his take on it.

One commenter may be using the story to bring up an issue raised in another thread on this blog three days ago (Liberal Bias in Academia). His comment, of course, fits better in that thread, and it comes off (to me, at least) as a little insensitive to a fellow philosopher who is facing an incredibly difficult situation, but regular readers of this blog understood the comment’s context.

And, just to be clear, as far as I can tell, the issue has been spun exactly as a liberal-conservative battle by those involved in it. That certainly seems to be the story of your fellow SBU alum, Cliff Bass (https://world.wng.org/2019/11/baptist_battles) and of others involved with it (https://baptistnews.com/article/professors-firing-leads-to-outside-review-of-teaching-at-baptist-university/#.X2YKnWhKjIU). I’m not sure how angry one should be at a blog devoted to general philosophy *if* it made (and I don’t think it did) the same mistake that others actually involved in the controversy made.

Browse the archives of this blog, and you will find a lot of posts in which we discuss the firings of our fellow philosophers. True, there is a contingent of generally disagreeable commenters who, at times, takes the opportunity to raise some hot-button issue they have or take pot shots at the discipline in general (maybe as a Baptist, you know of something of this kind of thing), but you will find that, on the whole, we are typically (with notable exceptions) sympathetic to the philosopher who was fired.

In this case, I think most of us agree that this is a very sad development for Dr. Manis, SBU students who are interested in philosophy, and our discipline. Perhaps, your anger is a little misdirected.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Wes McMichael
7 months ago

Just to clarify my confusing post (as always sarcasm doesn’t carry very well on the internet), I have nothing but sympathy for Professor Manis and, if his testimony is to be trusted, his dismissal doesn’t appear justified on any grounds—at least not on grounds that would not justify similar actions in other contexts currently enraging conservatives on the other thread. Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Wes McMichael
7 months ago

Actual SBU alum might be frustrated with those in these comment sections who clearly think orthodox Christianity = unthinking dogmatism = conservatism; while those that come under scrutiny at their universities are the thoughtful, intelligent ones who are automatically presumed to be unorthodox and also politically-left. It demonstrates a culpable ignorance of the entire history of Christian thought, as well as the diversity and complexity of scholarship and political orientations within Christianity currently. This might be more aimed at dmf. Delon’s point, interpreted charitably, is just that intolerance isn’t limited to the left. Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Prof L
7 months ago

That is not something that anyone here implied, certainly not me. As Wes McMichael notes, if you were to have a spectrum of conservative/liberal within the Baptist context, then this seems to be the way the issue is taking place. That’s all the information we have. Thanks for interpreting my comment charitably. This will be my last attempt at clarification, and again apologies for not making myself clear initially. Academic freedom issues and alleged overrepresentation of leftists in academia are often conflated; I think they’re orthogonal, as many recent cases illustrate. So nothing in our outrage at this case hinges on whether orthodox Christians or religious conservatives are unthinking dogmatists, or whether Professor Manis is himself a ‘liberal’ in at least one sense of the word. The main take-away, I think, is that philosophy is under threat in many places, as is academic freedom, and this has little if anything to do with leftists taking over.Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
Reply to  Prof L
7 months ago

Prof L.

I’m not sure many regular readers of this blog make the association you describe: “Christianity = unthinking dogmatism = conservatism.”

Helen De Cruz is a somewhat regular contributor here, and I don’t think even her staunchest critic among professional philosophers would accuse her of being an unthinking dogmatist (I don’t know what her political beliefs are). No one would say that of Keith DeRose, Peter Van Inwagen, etc. I think most of the regular readers here are fairly well-versed in Christian thought, both historic and contemporary. I’ve seen some comments here that are guilty of the simplistic association you mention, but those seem to me to be the exception, rather than the rule.

Also, SBU Alum seems to think the commenters here are conservatives, not liberals. He writes, “The fact that you only know theology as ‘liberal’ (evil bad guy who doesn’t agree with your doctrine) and conservative (very very good guy, agrees with you on everything) shows that you desperately needed an actual Christian philosophical education.” Maybe you read him differently?Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Wes McMichael
7 months ago

I didn’t mean to cause offense, and I agree that it’s not everyone—but it is something I’ve noticed on this blog. It was particularly stark on a post about Liberty U, which was written at the time when they were culling the philosophy department there. I’m not going to go dig up old comments, but I was a bit taken aback at the ignorance on display. I’m no fan of Liberty and I’m not an evangelical Christian, but any philosopher worth their salt should know something of the richness of the Christian intellectual tradition. I take dmf’s comment above to be representative of that particular kind of comment, and to be the person actual alum had in mind.

Rereading actual alum’s comment has me more confused, though. I suppose I read them as attributing to other commenters (mainly dmf) the view that all Christians are “fideists” who divide the world into conservatives-good and liberals-bad. But on a second read, they might just be accusing everyone here of being a conservative fideist, which is strange. Report

SBU Alumni
SBU Alumni
7 months ago

Dr Manis is a brilliant philosopher and a very effective professor. This is shameful.Report

Russell Jackson
Russell Jackson
6 months ago