Disclosure note: The WORLD editorial staff has affiliations among both the PHC administration and faculty. Gene Edward Veith, the author of many books that stress the importance of liberal arts education, is a senior writer (and former cultural editor). Les Sillars, a PHC journalism professor, edits the Mailbag pages.
How many 300-student colleges in their first five years of existence gain major coverage from ABC, CNN, and other networks? How many in a troubled sixth year, when five of its 16 full-time faculty members say they will not sign contracts for the seventh, gain major coverage once again?
Patrick Henry College (PHC), a six-year-old evangelical liberal arts college in Purcellville, Va., has received a full measure of celebration and derision. Founded in 2000 by Michael Farris, an attorney and ordained Baptist minister who chairs the Home School Legal Defense Association, PHC has attracted students with Ivy-League-caliber SAT scores and placed many of them in impressive Washington internships. Its moot court team has already won the national championship twice, and its debate team in 2004 bested England's storied Oxford University squad.
But this past year has brought a debate about who is primarily responsible for maintaining in top condition the Christian engine that runs this fast ship: the administration or the faculty. Governance is a key issue at many colleges and universities: They were once run like companies with the CEO the key decision-maker, yet in the 20th century faculties claimed autonomy and relegated presidents largely to fund-raising. In that sense, the battle between the five dissident faculty members and President Farris was nothing new, but The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 12 reported it with a twist: "Five Departures on Patrick Henry Faculty Pose Question: Are Christianity and Liberal Arts Contradictory Missions?"
When it comes to jobs, the conflict is having a smooth conclusion. The five professors are all employed for this next academic year. Farris has stepped out of day-to-day shaping by becoming chancellor, with two respected former deans from other universities-Graham Walker of Oklahoma Wesleyan and Gene Edward Veith of Concordia University-becoming president and academic dean, respectively. PHC has also filled four of the five professorial slots with Ph.D. scholars who have impressive credentials, and the fifth is likely to be filled soon.
But the debate about how to create and maintain a Christian liberal arts college remains unsettled and unsettling to many, since the list of formerly Christian institutions-starting with Harvard and Yale-that lost their salt is so long. "There is an assumption that developed a hundred years ago that academic freedom and Christian commitment are virtually incompatible," says University of Notre Dame professor George Marsden, author of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. "That assumption developed at a time when major universities were moving away from their Christian heritages."
Marsden and James Burtchaell-in his book, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches-have explored underlying causes. They cite academic hubris, the desire for accolades in wider academe and respect from secular colleagues, and incremental doctrinal compromise in the name of "Christian unity." But Marsden says, "It's ridiculous to say that vigorous liberal arts scholarship 'can't work' at a Christian institution. It has worked in all sorts of places"-and he gives Covenant, Dordt, and Wheaton colleges as examples.
At PHC, incoming president Graham Walker said the administration never thought the professors "denied the inerrancy of the Bible, but they seemed to be slipping away from its epistemological and pedagogical supremacy." As evidence, he points to a lecture Todd Bates, professor of rhetoric and theology, prepared for the fall 2005 Faith and Reason series, part of a signature series attended by all students and faculty, with content published under Patrick Henry's aegis-and it was Farris's response to the lecture that became for some faculty members the tipping point in what they say was a growing concern over academic freedom.
Bates's original lecture began with a series of crucial questions: Out of all that can be known in contemporary society, "What are the most important things to know? Are these things worth knowing and other things not worth knowing? Are these things different for a Christian? . . . How do you decide?" His 22-page answer set forth Augustine's hierarchy of knowledge, where an ordered study of liberal arts (such as music, grammar, and astronomy) can lead students from knowledge of "corporeal" or earthly things toward a knowledge of "incorporeal" or eternal things, and then ideally to the realization that since there is a created order, there must be a Creator.
The lecture referred once overtly to Scripture, not as an answer to the original questions Bates posed but as an impetus for many Christian thinkers who have thought deeply about life and knowledge. Farris complained; he later told WORLD, "If you are going to purport to answer ultimate questions, such as 'what is it important to know' and be faithful to a biblical worldview, the Bible has to be at the core of the answer. It doesn't have to be the whole answer, but it has to be at the core. If you say you're answering ultimate questions and leave the Bible out, there's trouble."
Bates, though, told WORLD that he didn't leave the Bible out. "The second paragraph points to Scripture as the basis from which we seek answers to these ultimate questions. What I was trying to show is that a liberal arts education, done well, leads one ideally but not inevitably to the necessity of Christ." When Farris asked Bates to add more about the Bible to his lecture, he did so-but nine professors, seeing the president's request as one more example of academic meddling, agreed that if any of their jobs were threatened they would all leave PHC.
This spring Erik Root, professor of government, presented in class an ethics exercise called the "lifeboat example." He asked the class to imagine that two people, lost at sea, were clinging to an inner tube, but the tube could only support one person, so someone had to let go. During the discussion, which included an exploration of writings by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes about the state of nature, one student quoted Jesus's statement in the Gospel of John, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Root responded, "Great, but that's too simplistic. Can we flesh that out?"
The parent of that student, visiting the class that day, complained to Farris about Root's response. Farris temporarily suspended Root's 2006-07 contract, pending Root's explanation-and Professors Root, Robert Stacey, David Noe, and Kevin Culberson quickly said they would not return for 2006-07. The professors said Farris acted rashly and should have allowed Root to explain his position without taking other administrative action. A week later, in response to what Bates saw as Farris's denigration of the other faculty, Bates announced he would not return in 2006-07.
The professors say Farris on numerous occasions publicly questioned their theological integrity, saying they had a "low view of Scripture." In April, the division became more intense when Noe and Culberson wrote an article in The Source, a campus publication, about general revelation in education. As part of what they said was their attempt to draw "a line in the sand," the authors asserted that "there is no greater good than knowledge, for without knowledge, there can be no use of any other gift which God imparts." They also characterized Scripture as "a subset of knowledge . . . a smaller class of things than what we know from general revelation, which represents the entire genus of knowable things."
The "line in the sand" did bring about a predictable reaction: Farris saw the article as evidence that "an intellectual arrogance was seeping in," and saw himself as guarding against the incremental steps away from the centrality of Scripture that have led other institutions into the non-Christian morass described in The Dying of the Light. The five professors saw Farris as an authoritarian meddling in legitimate academic exploration.
As tensions grew and Stacey and Root acted in ways that PHC felt violated their contracts, the college ended up firing them "for cause" rather than letting them finish out their years. PHC fired Stacey because he gave students in his class the option to leave if they believed he was not adhering to the PHC statement of faith. Neither PHC nor Root will give specific detail about the incident that led to his firing. Meanwhile Noe, a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, said the fellow elders of his church asked one of the denomination's presbyteries to form a committee to investigate Farris's statements about Noe's fidelity to Scripture. Noe says, "an ecclesiastical judgment will be pronounced on my doctrine and character and I look forward to that."
Whatever happens there, the cost of this dispute has been high. It provided ammunition to secular liberals who say that Christianity and a liberal arts education can't mix. It tore apart the PHC faculty and engendered confusion in students. And what now? New president Graham Walker states that his goal is to institutionalize PHC as "a living part of the body of Christ that will not give in to the fatal errors that have characterized Christian academe in the past."
In the departing professors' view:
•Farris considered theological and academic views other than his own "outside the bounds of what is acceptable," in Todd Bates's words.
•Farris engaged in heavy-handed actions, including suspending Erik Root's contract for the upcoming school year before investigating a parental complaint. Farris did not want the professors to speak to the press but he damaged their reputations with public pronouncements that they had strayed from the college's mission and its statement of faith.
•Farris is antagonistic toward Reformed theology-in violation of the school's statement of doctrinal neutrality-and also toward great thinkers like Augustine, Plato, and Aristotle, a problem since such thinkers figure heavily in PHC's curriculum.
•The issue "can be boiled down to academic freedom and due process," Bates said.
In Michael Farris's view:
•A small group of professors, in public comments and in writing, was beginning to emphasize human philosophies rather than Scripture as the central tenets of their teaching.
•The professors who announced, following the suspension of Root, that they would not be back in September 2006, would not meet with Farris privately to discuss the problems. Some faculty members leaked to the press the identity of the student whose parent complained about Root and began giving media interviews with the goal of creating a public controversy.
•The issue isn't academic freedom, due process, or Reformed theology but the "low view" of Scripture that some professors have. Farris calls it "a philosophical war. Basically, how high do we hold the knowledge of man in relationship to the Bible?"