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Irreconcilable differences?

Education | Five professors say that Patrick Henry College encroached on their academic freedom, but the administration says it is preventing the slide to secularism that has characterized many once-Christian colleges

Issue: "Katie can't bar the door," July 15, 2006

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.

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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.

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