Category Archives: Academic Freedom

SHORTER LIBRARIAN PREPARES TO LEAVE, WOULD LOVE TO STAY

UPDATE: Michael Wilson’s plight has drawn national attention. Inside Higher Ed is the most widely read academic journal on the web.

The following article appeared in last Sunday’s edition of the Rome News-Tribune, and is reproduced here with permission.

Shorter librarian prepares to leave, would love to stay
by Kim Sloan, staff writer

For 14 years Michael Wilson has worked at a job he loves as the off-campus librarian for professional studies at Shorter University.

That job is threatened by a new policy the university is enacting requiring all staff and faculty to sign a Faith and Personal Lifestyle statement in which they agree, among other things, to “reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality.”

Wilson is gay. School officials never asked him about his lifestyle when he was hired on April 20, 1998, which is also his father’s birthday, he said. But he thinks they probably knew when he was tenured in 2006.

Wilson signed his contract, but he marked out portions of the statement and sent it to the provost. He also sent a letter to Shorter University President Donald Dowless.

“I believe, for reasons that should be obvious, that the provisions therein constitute a grave violation of the principles of academic freedom and tenure, core values in academe that were formerly embraced by the university’s administration,” Wilson said in his letter. “I am aware of your intent to dismiss anyone, regardless of tenure status, who may express any disagreement with these provisions. Nevertheless, I would like to appeal to you, as a fellow academic, to reverse this significant departure from academic norms by creating an atmosphere in which faculty may teach, and students may learn, without these ideological restrictions.”

If a staff member doesn’t sign the statement of faith, their employment will not continue, according to Dawn Tolbert, Shorter University spokeswoman.

That leaves Wilson with the real possibility that he will be without a job in the next few weeks. But he plans to fight for the job he has loved so much, he said.

It’s a small department, he said, and it has given him a chance to do “a lot of everything,” he said.

“I’ve been everything from janitor to head librarian,” Wilson said. “I’ve learned so much and I made this job my own.”

Shorter University’s handbook states that, “tenure is the reasonable expectation of continued employment on an annual instructional term basis as long as, and only as long as: 1) The tenured faculty member does not breach his/her current contract or any subsequent annual instructional term contract; 2) Shorter is financially able to continue to employ the tenured faculty member; and 3) There is sufficient demand at Shorter to justify the need for performance by the tenured faculty member in his/her particular field.”

While as of today Wilson still works for Shorter, his name is on a list provided by the website SaveOurShorter.com of 53 staff and faculty members who have left or are expected to leave the university this year, mainly because of the faith statement passed by the Board of Trustees last October.

When asked if the number was accurate, Tolbert said in an email, “We don’t have a final number on who is leaving yet; faculty contracts are still out. We are interviewing for positions that are open and will announce new hires as they are finalized.”

Wilson hopes there is a way he could stay.

“I genuinely care about the library, my students, and the well-being of the university, and I am concerned that my sudden departure would create hardship for all involved,” he said in his letter to Dowless.

Read more: RN-T.com – Shorter librarian prepares to leave would love to stay

HAIL AND FAREWELL

On Friday, May 4, the latest graduates of Shorter University will participate in a traditional graduation ceremony to mark their transition from college to work. One part of this ceremony involves the students marching through the exit gates in front of the Sheffield-Thompson building, on which the words, “Go Forth to Serve” are inscribed. While we hope that our new graduates will indeed be inspired to serve others in humane ways, it seems ironic that another departing contingent, whose members have served the present institution faithfully for decades, is being ushered out quite unceremoniously. We are referring, of course, to those whose consciences will not allow them to remain at our good school. To these brave men and women, the following is respectfully dedicated.

 “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
― George Eliot, Middlemarch

When I look back on my time at Shorter, I can’t help but fondly remember those who were perhaps the most important part of my education: my teachers. I was a student in the School of Fine Arts, and it seemed at times that we students were so busy with classes, recitals, shows, concerts, and any number of other activities that we barely left those buildings. We were there at all hours of the day and night because we were learning. Beyond learning the basic standards for an education in the arts, we wanted relevant artistic experience – and we got just that. The school’s reputation was built upon its incredible artistic integrity. To gain admission to a school that provided so many opportunities to perform in such high caliber situations was something we knew was special. What we didn’t anticipate was the depth of personal dedication that the faculty and staff members would show us.

I wasn’t the most accomplished music student when I came in to Shorter. I had a natural talent and a willingness to learn, but there was a lot of work to be done. I’d never taken voice lessons before college, so my voice teacher literally had to build my technique from the ground up. He required me to sing in front of our studio class (which was not an easy feat for a girl who had never really done much solo singing, let alone solo singing in a foreign language). With a good dose of encouragement (and certainly a good amount of “tough love”!), he made me the singer I am today.

My teacher’s dedication was not limited to regular business hours. He went from competition to competition with me. He was there for every single recital. He even volunteered to teach a summer course of music theory when a few of us (literally, the minimum number of students allowed to constitute a summer class) needed to pass it in order to be able to graduate within four years. I remember seeing him in the computer lab as late as midnight and beyond, transcribing music from scores so that a show in the musical theater department could happen. He even came to First Baptist in Rome and sat right alongside my family when I was baptized. His dedication to my academic success, my artistic integrity, and my life was evident.  The thing is, he wasn’t the only one. Many, many more faculty members than just this particular one generously gave their time. They taught full days from 8 a. m. until 5 p. m., and then more often than not they spent their evenings at the school running rehearsals, building sets, giving recitals, and supporting their students in performance. I left an undergraduate program with training that literally made schools and employers sit up and listen, but more than that, I left with an enriched life and a group of educators who were now my mentors and my family.

This Friday’s Commencement marks not only the graduation of the 2012 class of Shorter University, but also the departure of so many members of the faculty and staff at every campus. Thus far, 54 employees, whose combined years of service totals an amazing 432 years, have chosen to leave rather than sign the Personal Lifestyle Statement. At this point, there are likely to be more who choose to leave. This is not surprising; results of the recent poll of Shorter employees indicated that this was coming. Eighty-nine percent of the employees who responded to this survey did not agree with Dr. Donald Dowless and the direction in which he is taking Shorter University, and voted no confidence in his administration. Sixty-five percent plan on resigning at some point, and 75 percent – read that, 75 percent of Shorter University employees – are opposed to signing the Statement.

While there are many faculty and staff members who are choosing to leave, there are others who are staying on and who will, however reluctantly, sign the Statement. Some are too close to retirement to try to find a job elsewhere; signing the Statement is the only way to keep their jobs and make it to retirement. Some have tried very hard to find other jobs, but in the current  market they cannot. Signing the Statement, while it goes against every fiber of their being, is the only way they can be sure that they’ll be able to put food on their families’ tables. Some are staying to see their remaining students through the end of their college careers; signing the Statement is the only way to ensure the educational integrity of their degrees. What is increasingly evident is that the vast majority of employees who are staying at Shorter do not want to sign this Statement. For whatever individual reason, they cannot simply leave their jobs, and so they must pretend to buy into the whole ludicrous situation in which they find themselves, thanks to Dr. Donald Dowless.

Throughout this awful year, each member of the faculty and staff has supported their students. They have walked with their heads high, and they have had to make some incredibly tough decisions.  For the employees who are staying on at Shorter, whether it be for your own well-being or for the well-being of your students or department, we wish to thank you. Your decision could not have been an easy one to make, and there isn’t a single person here who would wish to be in your position. Thank you for making the difficult decisions, and know that you are in our prayers. For the 54 faculty and staff members who have decided to move on, we wish you well and thank you for your dedication. Your show of integrity for what is best for yourselves, for your families, and for Shorter University has not been overlooked. You have given so much of your time to ensure that the integrity of Shorter is intact. We particularly understand that sometimes in order to save something you love, you must be willing to walk away from it. We see that, and we thank you. You will be missed.

Jamie Barton

AAUP Expresses Concerns

The following letter was sent from the American Association of University Professors to President Dowless and Chair-Elect Harris on December 12, 2011.

Dear President Dowless and Chair-Elect Harris:

Members of the faculty at Shorter University have consulted with the American Association of University Professors as a result of a series of four statements approved by the board of trustees at its meeting on October 21, without prior discussion with the faculty, including a “Personal Lifestyle Statement,” a “Statement of Faith,” a “Philosophy for Christian Education,”  and a document entitled “Biblical Principles on the Integration of Faith and Learning.” They have expressed concern that the four documents are inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, with longstanding institutional practice, and with the terms and conditions of their appointments.

The interest of the Association in this situation stems from our longstanding commitment to academic freedom and tenure, the basic tenets of which are set forth in the enclosed 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. That document, a joint formulation of the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, has received the endorsement of more than 210 scholarly and educational associations. We note that the 2011 edition of the Shorter University Faculty Handbook, updated this past May, includes a section on “Academic Freedom” (2.8.1) that is based essentially on the corresponding provisions of the 1940 Statement.

Among the requirements of the above-mentioned documents, we understand, is that faculty members develop an annual written plan of how they are going to “integrate the Christian faith” into their teaching. The faith statement requires that faculty believe that the Bible is inerrant and infallible and that all non-Christians are condemned to “everlasting torment.” All members of the faculty (and the staff), we note, are being required to sign these documents as a condition of continuing service at the university. Indeed, failure to adhere to the lifestyle statement “may result in disciplinary action … up to and including immediate termination.”

We wish to convey our concerns over the ramifications of these requirements for the exercise of academic freedom at Shorter University. Additional allegations we have received about adverse actions that the administration has already taken against faculty members viewed as out of conformity with the newly promulgated standards add to our concerns.

The information in our possession regarding the situation at Shorter University has come to us from faculty sources and media accounts, and we realize that you may have additional information that would contribute to our understanding of what has occurred. We would therefore welcome hearing from you.

Sincerely,
B. Robert Kreiser
Associate Secretary