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Christian universities free to think

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Many of us, when we look back on our student days, remember certain professors who, through their teaching ability or personal character, left an indelible and formative impression that lasted a lifetime. For me, one of those professors was Dr. Henry Krahn, president of Winnipeg’s Mennonite Brethren Bible College from 1974–82.

Krahn, who passed away in 1985, taught history when I was a student at the college. His approach to intellectual inquiry shaped my thinking – and still shapes it today.

For Krahn, one of the highest values for university education was freedom of thought. He was committed to John 8:32: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Of him, it was written: “No student could sit through his courses without being caught up with his infectious zeal for truth. Narrow sectarianism and dogmatic assumptions were foreign to him. He constantly exhibited a rare combination of biblical piety with a fearless openness to new theological concepts.”

Last summer, a number of MBBC alumni attended a 30-year reunion in Winnipeg. At the event, Krahn’s daughter, Valerie, shared a reflection about her father. She noted that some people worried the kind of serious intellectual study he championed might lead students away from faith.

“My dad thought just the opposite way,” she said. “He was not afraid to take his students’ doubts or fears seriously. He challenged them to work through to a new understanding of God and their life purpose.”

Limits on academic freedom?

Thoughts about Henry Krahn come back to me these days as I read about how the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has accused some Canadian Christian universities – Trinity Western in Langley, B.C., Crandall in Moncton, N.B., Redeemer in Ancaster, Ont., and Krahn’s old school, now called Canadian Mennonite University – of putting limits on academic freedom.

The schools dispute the charge.

“What CAUT has done is misguided,” says Earl Davey, CMU’s vice president for academics. “The notion one can’t do serious intellectual work in a religious institution is naive.”

TWU president Jonathan Raymond criticized the CAUT for prejudging his school before investigators even showed up on campus. “It appears that they failed to take into account evidence that was contrary to the conclusions,” he notes.

“In our 28 years of existence, we have not had a single instance of a faculty member alleging that their academic freedom has been infringed in any way,” says Redeemer president Hubert Krygsman. “We respectfully disagree with the way that CAUT, in our view, narrowly defines academic freedom.”

And that, really, is the big question: Who gets to define academic freedom, anyway?

The CAUT, which represents 65,000 academics across the country (although none of the faculty at the four schools) is one group that can do so. But so can the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (AUCC), the closest thing Canadians have to a credentialing body for higher education.

To become a member of the AUCC, schools must, among other things, promote and protect “the honest search for knowledge without fear of reprisal by the institution or third parties.”

Belonging to the AUCC has been defined as getting a gold seal of approval from the rest of Canada’s universities. Three of the four schools on the CAUT list – CMU, TWU, and Redeemer – are members of the AUCC.

Support from an unexpected quarter

Not surprisingly, the four schools aren’t issuing press releases or defending themselves in public. They don’t need the hassle, and besides, they have plenty of other issues to keep them busy. But now support is coming from an unexpected quarter: CAUT members themselves.

In January, Paul Allen, an associate professor of theology at Concordia University in Montreal, launched a petition accusing CAUT of “bullying” the four Christian schools and calling on it to “cease its harassment of these institutions, for which there is no mandate from the membership at large.”

“What we have here is an academic union ganging up on these smaller Christian universities,” says Allen. “It bothered me that this is anti-religious ideology masked as supposedly an academic freedom issue…. I thought it was high time that people from the public universities take a stand.”

The petition notes that questions of academic freedom could equally be asked of non-religious schools, which “may also have their assumed ideologies, even if no statement of faith must be signed.”

So far, 211 academics have signed the petition.

I suspect that Henry Krahn would have found this situation amusing; the last thing he would expect to see was the school he helped shape be accused of limiting academic freedom. But he also would have eagerly anticipated a chance to participate in the debate, arguing that religious faith is not incompatible with serious, critical, and thoughtful intellectual inquiry.

Krahn was forever encouraging his students to “talk, debate, wrestle with issues,” his daughter said. “Express the incongruities you see – they will lead you to a higher way…. These were the beliefs that my dad hoped his students would appropriate for their lives.”

That’s a good motto for any student, no matter what or where they are studying.

John Longhurst is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank in Winnipeg. He is a member of River East MB Church. This article first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.

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