Class dismissed

National | Pornography as literature on a Christian college campus? Bethel College student's complaint raises serious questions of academic freedom and Christian propriety in education

Issue: "Louisiana's Buy-You-Election," May 17, 1997

Andrea Sisam was perplexed. Some of her professors at Bethel College used vulgar language in class. Some asked students to read books and to watch films that contained hard-core violence and profanity, and explicit, illicit sex. This is not what she expected from this Christian college, where her parents were spending tens of thousands of dollars for a Christ-centered education. So after discussing her concerns with her parents, she took a course of action she thought proper. She wrote a letter to her minister. That was more than two years and a lawsuit ago. Her page-and-a-half letter touched off a controversy that has raised several questions that extend beyond the borders of this Minneapolis campus: What exactly constitutes a Christian liberal arts education? Where, exactly, do Christians draw the lines on vulgarity, obscenity, and pornography? At issue are films like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and the German film The Tin Drum, which were shown in two classes in which Miss Sisam was enrolled at Bethel. Bethel College President George Brushaber defends use of such material as a way to demonstrate its adverse impact on society and to prepare students for the world that awaits them after graduation. &quotIt is true that bad language was used often in the films and that violence, racial hatred and illicit sex were part of some of the films," Mr. Brushaber wrote in a letter to Miss Sisam's pastor John Eagan, a Bethel alumnus and friend of Mr. Brushaber. &quotThe class was intended to include precisely the tension that Andrea felt," the Bethel president continued. &quotWhat is the corrosive effect of modern film on traditional standards and values? What are the redemptive aspects of the medium?" Mr. Eagan strongly questions that defense. &quotThe debate centers around whether you have to swim in the mud to study the mud," he says. &quotThe Sisams, and I personally, have a different view. It is possible to study the impact of these materials in our culture without having to become subject to them yourselves. If you don't take that view, then only prostitutes could deal with prostitutes." Andrea Sisam, who is 21 now, wrote the letter to her pastor on Jan. 13, 1995. In the letter she reported that a professor of psychology cursed in class and used crude language to lead a discussion of the sexual relationship between a husband and wife. She also described a class titled &quotFilms and Modern Sensibility," which was taught by two professors who, she said, cursed in front of the students. On Jan. 27, 1995, the pastor wrote to President Brushaber and enclosed a copy of Miss Sisam's letter. In July, when he had heard nothing from the college, Mr. Eagan wrote a second letter to Mr. Brushaber, enclosing a copy of his first letter and another copy of Miss Sisam's. On Oct. 5, Mr. Eagan wrote again, acknowledging a note he had received from Mr. Brushaber on another matter but expressing disappointment that the president still hadn't addressed his concerns. On Oct. 12, Mr. Brushaber replied. He apologized for the delay but assured Mr. Eagan that even though the college had not responded to him or to Miss Sisam, it had investigated her complaints. The psychology professor &quotdid not use the language as swearing," Mr. Brushaber wrote, &quotbut was, nevertheless, using the offensive words gratuitously. He was reprimanded and admonished about his attitude and his use of the words." The president defended the use of the films shown in the &quotFilms and Modern Sensibility" class. The Brushaber-Eagan correspondence continued, with Mr. Eagan refusing to buy his friend's defense. The issue came to a head, however, when in the fall of 1996 The Tin Drum was shown as part of the &quotMagical Realism" class in which Andrea was enrolled. The movie includes graphic illicit sex, and several students were assigned to watch the film on their own and then present it to the entire class. On Oct. 2, 1996, Andrea's mother delivered to the board of trustees a letter and a draft copy of a lawsuit that she said she would file unless the board of directors and the president would meet with her within the next five days. The regents immediately formed an investigative committee to study her complaints and to meet with Miss Sisam and her parents. Ultimately, the Sisams filed the suit. Their suit accused Bethel of breach of contract for failing to provide the promised Christian atmosphere. It said the school violated its own handbook by showing pornography-which students are forbidden to possess-on campus. And the Sisams cited the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in saying it had defrauded students by advertising itself as a sectarian, Christian college when, in fact, it no longer was. Bethel filed a motion to dismiss and a counterclaim, accusing the Sisams of filing a frivolous lawsuit and charging that statements in their suit &quotare false and libelous and have injured the reputation" of Bethel College. On April 30, more than two years after Miss Sisam wrote her letter, Judge Paulette Kane Flynn dismissed both the Sisam suit and Bethel's counterclaims. The confusion, the miscommunication, the frustration remain unresolved. Mr. Brushaber staunchly defends his school's approach to education, although he says The Tin Drum will no longer be shown nor will the &quotMagical Realism" class be repeated. &quotIn regard to the film, we have very clearly stated that the film should not have been used in the way in which it was used," he said. &quotWe regret that. The faculty member regrets that. We would not turn the film over to a small group of students to view. The faculty member might make some selection from the film and excerpt a scene or two. But we don't have any intention of using that film again." Richard Sherry, dean of Faculty Growth and Assessment, was a member of the committee formed to investigate Miss Sisam's complaints. While the Sisams characterized The Tin Drum as child pornography, Mr. Sherry sees it differently. Of the sex scenes, he says: &quotThey are simulated. They are likely to be troubling for an audience. Would I use them in a class or with my children? No, I certainly would not. At the same time they are an integral and significant part of the issues of the story. I would not characterize them as the Sisams have as child pornography. And I would not describe them as pornographic at all." The school has taken action to see that material to be used in the future will be closely scrutinized by peers within departments, Mr. Brushaber says. &quotWe'll remind them again and again to treat sensitive material with great care and to seek the wisdom of colleagues, that mutual accountability that makes a true community like this work," he says. But in Bethel's filings with the court, the college's attorneys make much of the awards and acclaim given to the movie version of The Tin Drum and other movies and books highly praised by non-Christian critics. As Mr. Eagan puts it, no one won in this case. The subject of what is appropriate in a Christian classroom still has not been resolved. And each side believes the other acted inappropriately. &quotThere is something disproportionate in the way this family is reacting to this issue by charging RICO law violations," Mr. Brushaber says. &quotThat was designed by Congress to punish the Mafia and strip the Mafia of its assets.... They're out to put the hammer on us big time." Edwin Sisam says the lawsuit came only after 18 months of frustration without a single contact by the college. &quotWe felt it was totally ineffective to contact the president's office," he says. A letter with a draft of a lawsuit, however, brought a response within 24 hours. The school's attorney thanked the Sisams for handling the matter in confidence and assured them the school was taking action to study the matter. But when there was no solution in three months, the Sisams filed the suit. &quotThere is no question in my mind that Bethel wanted this resolved in the court of law because they believed they had constitutional freedoms," Mr. Sisam says. &quotI feel betrayed. And I feel increasingly more betrayed when I see community bulletins from Bethel College which state that the faculty has the full support of the board." Since this matter became public, Miss Sisam was accosted and harassed by a professor, she says, and a writer for the Bethel student newspaper recently suggested she might not even be a Christian. &quotI've been as disappointed with their treatment of Andrea as I have been with their showing of pornographic material in the classroom," Mr. Eagan says. &quotGeorge [Brushaber] speaks, and their lifestyle covenant speaks, of a loving, Christian community expressing concerns and cares for one another. And I believe that is George's temperament. He is a very decent man. But the college has been ruthless with her." Miss Sisam, who wanted to attend a Christian college, withdrew from Bethel after the showing of The Tin Drum, and she is now enrolled at the University of Minnesota. Eventually, Mr. Brushaber and Jay Barnes, the provost, met with Mr. Eagan. Mr. Barnes had taught a course in human sexuality at the college he worked at before coming to Bethel, and Mr. Eagan used that experience to make a point: In discussing a particular sexual practice, did the students have to see it in order to have a good education about it? When Mr. Barnes said that wasn't necessary, Mr. Eagan argued that there is no need to show explicit material at Bethel. The college, Mr. Eagan states, has &quotcaved in to an academic view that I believe is very misguided-I think it's sincere, but very misguided-that says if that film is shown at two in the morning in the men's dorm, and they get caught, they'll get suspended, but if it's in a classroom and directed by a professor, then it becomes somehow sanctified in academic garb. It's not clear to me what portion of Scripture would defend that view. &quotThese are good people, but I believe they are wrong in what is required to get a good education."

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